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Science as a candle 
in the dark 

'Eloquent and fascinating. . . I wish I had written 
The Demon-Haunted World . . . Please read this book.' 
Richard Dawkins, The Times 

Are we on the brink of a new Dark Age of 
irrationality and superstition? 

In this stirring, brilliantly argued book, internationally respected 
scientist Carl Sagan shows how scientific thinking is necessary to 
safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilisation. 
From an American president consulting horoscopes to a medieval court 
burning nine-year-old 'witches', Sagan shows the hazards of scientific 
ignorance. Convincingly debunking alien abduction, mediums, faith- 
healing fraud, and other modern-day 'demons', he also refutes the 
argument that science destroys spirituality, asks why scientific study is 
often stigmatised, and provides a 'baloney detection kit' for thinking 
through political, social and other issues. 

'This is a stimulating study of science as, at its best, a positively 
inspirational answer to the irrational rituals that, at their worst, threaten 
the planet. Sagan helps us accept the world as it is, not as a fakeloric 
fantasy.' Alan Bold, Glasgow Herald 

'A brilliant populariser of astronomy and space science ... Sagan's 
writing is as lucid and stylish as ever.' Clivc Cookson, Financial Times 

'My candidate for planetary ambassador can be none other than Carl 
Sagan himself. He is wise, humane, polymathic, witty, well read, and 
incapable of composing a dull sentence.' Richard Dawkins, The Times 

'No one lias ever succeeded in conveying the wonder, excitement and 
joy of science ;is widely as Carl Sagan and few as well ... His ability to 
capture the imagination of millions and to explain difficult concepts in 
understandable terms is a magnificent achievement.' 
The National Academy of Sciences, on awarding Carl Sagan 
its highest honour in 1994 

Cover photograph © Telegraph Colour Library 


Carl Sagan is the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy 
and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for 
Planetary Studies at Cornell University; Distinguished 
Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 
California Institute of Technology; and co-founder and 
President of The Planetary Society, the largest space- 
interest group in the world. 

For his work, Dr Sagan has been awarded the NASA 
Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and 
(twice) for Distinguished Public Service, as well as the 
NASA Apollo Achievement Award. Asteroid 2709 Sagan 
is named after him. 

This is the twenty-ninth book Carl Sagan has authored, 
co-authored or edited. Some of his other hooks: 

Intelligent Life in the Universe 

(with I. S. Shklovskii) 

The Dragons of Eden 
Broca's Brain 
Contact: A Novel 

(with Ann Druyan) 

A Path Where No Man Thought: 
Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race 

(with Richard Tnrco) 

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: 
A Search for Who We Are 

(with Ann Druyan) 

Pale Blue Dot: 
A Vision of the Human Future in Space 



Science as a Candle 
in the Dark 

Carl Sagan 


Copyright © 1997 Carl Sagan 

The right of Carl Sagan to be identified as the Author of 
the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the 
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. 

First published in 1996 

First published in this edition in 1997 

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be 
reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, 
in any form or by any means without the prior written 
permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated 
in any form of binding or cover other than that in which 
it is published and without a similar condition being 
imposed on the subsequent purchaser. 

ISBN 0 7472 5156 8 

Typeset by 
Letterpart Limited, Reigate, Surrey 

Printed and bound in Great Britain by 
Clays Ltd, St Ives pic 

A division of Hodder Headline PLC 
338 Euston Road 
London NW1 3BH 

To Tonio, 
My grandson. 

I wish you a world 
Free of demons 
And full of light. 

We wait for light, but behold darkness. 

Isaiah 59:9 

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. 



Preface: My Teachers 1 

1 The Most Precious Thing 6 

2 Science and Hope 27 

3 The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 43 

4 Aliens 61 

5 Spoofing and Secrecy 77 

6 Hallucinations 93 

7 The Demon-Haunted World 108 

8 On the Distinction between True and False Visions 129 

9 Therapy 143 

10 The Dragon in My Garage 160 

11 The City of Grief 179 

12 The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 189 

13 Obsessed with Reality 207 

14 Antiscience 234 

15 Newton's Sleep 253 

16 When Scientists Know Sin 267 

17 The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 277 

18 The Wind Makes Dust 290 

19 No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 300 

20 House on Fire* 318 

21 The Path to Freedom* 333 

22 Significance Junkies 345 

23 Maxwell and The Nerds 355 

24 Science and Witchcraft* 377 

25 Real Patriots Ask Questions* 396 
Acknowledgements 409 
References 412 
Index 427 

* Written with Ann Druyan 

My Teachers 

It was a blustery fall day in 1939. In the streets outside the 
apartment building, fallen leaves were swirling in little whirl- 
winds, each with a life of its own. It was good to be inside and 
warm and safe, with my mother preparing dinner in the next 
room. In our apartment there were no older kids who picked on 
you for no reason. Just the week before, I had been in a fight - I 
can't remember, after all these years, who it was with; maybe it 
was Snoony Agata from the third floor - and, after a wild swing, I 
found I had put my fist through the plate glass window of 
Schechter's drug store. 

Mr Schechter was solicitous: 'It's all right, I'm insured,' he said 
as he put some unbelievably painful antiseptic on my wrist. My 
mother took me to the doctor whose office was on the ground 
floor of our building. With a pair of tweezers, he pulled out a 
fragment of glass. Using needle and thread, he sewed two stitches. 

'Two stitches!' my father had repeated later that night. He knew 
about stitches, because he was a cutter in the garment industry; his 
job was to use a very scary power saw to cut out patterns - backs, 
say, or sleeves for ladies' coats and suits - from an enormous stack 
of cloth. Then the patterns were conveyed to endless rows of 
women sitting at sewing machines. He was pleased I had gotten 
angry enough to overcome a natural timidity. 

Sometimes it was good to fight back. I hadn't planned to do 
anything violent. It just happened. One moment Snoony was 



pushing me and the next moment my fist was through Mr 
Schechter's window. I had injured my wrist, generated an unex- 
pected medical expense, broken a plate glass window, and no one 
was mad at me. As for Snoony, he was more friendly than ever. 

I puzzled over what the lesson was. But it was much more 
pleasant to work it out up here in the warmth of the apartment, 
gazing out through the living-room window into Lower New York 
Bay, than to risk some new misadventure on the streets below. 

As she often did, my mother had changed her clothes and made 
up her face in anticipation of my father's arrival. We talked about 
my fight with Snoony. The Sun was almost setting and together we 
looked out across the choppy waters. 

'There are people fighting out there, killing each other,' she 
said, waving vaguely across the Atlantic. I peered intently. 

'I know,' I replied. 'I can see them.' 

'No, you can't,' she replied, sceptically, almost severely, before 
returning to the kitchen. 'They're too far away.' 

How could she know whether I could see them or not? I 
wondered. Squinting, I had thought I'd made out a thin strip of 
land at the horizon on which tiny figures were pushing and shoving 
and duelling with swords as they did in my comic books. But maybe 
she was right. Maybe it had just been my imagination, a little like 
the midnight monsters that still, on occasion, awakened me from a 
deep sleep, my pyjamas drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. 

How can you tell when someone is only imagining? I gazed out 
across the grey waters until night fell and I was called to wash my 
hands for dinner. When he came home, my father swooped me up 
in his arms. I could feel the cold of the outside world against his 
one-day growth of beard. 

On a Sunday in that same year, my father had patiently explained 
to me about zero as a placeholder in arithmetic, about the 
wicked-sounding names of big numbers, and about how there's no 
biggest number ('You can always add one,' he pointed out). 
Suddenly, I was seized by a childish compulsion to write in 
sequence all the integers from 1 to 1,000. We had no pads of 
paper, but my father offered up the stack of grey cardboards he 
had been saving from when his shirts were sent to the laundry. I 


My Teachers 

started the project eagerly, but was surprised at how slowly it 
went. When I had gotten no farther than the low hundreds, my 
mother announced that it was time for me to take my bath. I was 
disconsolate. I had to get a thousand. A mediator his whole life, 
my father intervened: if I would cheerfully submit to the bath, he 
would continue the sequence. I was overjoyed. By the time I 
emerged, he was approaching 900, and I was able to reach 1,000 
only a little past my ordinary bedtime. The magnitude of large 
numbers has never ceased to impress me. 

Also in 1939 my parents took me to the New York World's Fair. 
There, I was offered a vision of a perfect future made possible by 
science and high technology. A time capsule was buried, packed 
with artefacts of our time for the benefit of those in the far future - 
who, astonishingly, might not know much about the people of 
1939. The 'World of Tomorrow' would be sleek, clean, stream- 
lined and, as far as I could tell, without a trace of poor people. 

'See sound' one exhibit bewilderingly commanded. And sure 
enough, when the tuning fork was struck by the little hammer, a 
beautiful sine wave marched across the oscilloscope screen. 'Hear 
light' another poster exhorted. And sure enough, when the 
flashlight shone on the photocell, I could hear something like the 
static on our Motorola radio set when the dial was between 
stations. Plainly the world held wonders of a kind I had never 
guessed. How could a tone become a picture and light become a 

My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing 
about science. But in introducing me simultaneously to scepticism 
and to wonder, they taught me the two uneasily cohabiting modes 
of thought that are central to the scientific method. They were 
only one step out of poverty. But when I announced that I wanted 
to be an astronomer, I received unqualified support - even if they 
(as I) had only the most rudimentary idea of what an astronomer 
does. They never suggested that, all things considered, it might be 
better to be a doctor or a lawyer. 

I wish I could tell you about inspirational teachers in science 
from my elementary or junior high or high school days. But as I 
think back on it, there were none. There was rote memorization 
about the Periodic Table of the Elements, levers and inclined 



planes, green plant photosynthesis, and the difference between 
anthracite and bituminous coal. But there was no soaring sense of 
wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about 
mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed. In high school 
laboratory courses, there was an answer we were supposed to get. 
We were marked off if we didn't get it. There was no encourage- 
ment to pursue our own interests or hunches or conceptual 
mistakes. In the backs of textbooks there was material you could 
tell was interesting. The school year would always end before we 
got to it. You could find wonderful books on astronomy, say, in 
the libraries, but not in the classroom. Long division was taught as 
a set of rules from a cookbook, with no explanation of how this 
particular sequence of short divisions, multiplications and subtrac- 
tions got you the right answer. In high school, extracting square 
roots was offered reverentially, as if it were a method once handed 
down from Mt Sinai. It was our job merely to remember what we 
had been commanded. Get the right answer, and never mind that 
you don't understand what you're doing. I had a very capable 
second-year algebra teacher from whom I learned much math- 
ematics; but he was also a bully who enjoyed reducing young 
women to tears. My interest in science was maintained through all 
those school years by reading books and magazines on science fact 
and fiction. 

College was the fulfilment of my dreams: I found teachers who 
not only understood science, but who were actually able to explain 
it. I was lucky enough to attend one of the great institutions of 
learning of the time, the University of Chicago. I was a physics 
student in a department orbiting around Enrico Fermi; I discov- 
ered what true mathematical elegance is from Subrahmanyan 
Chandrasekhar; I was given the chance to talk chemistry with 
Harold Urey; over summers I was apprenticed in biology to H.J. 
Muller at Indiana University; and I learned planetary astronomy 
from its only full-time practitioner at the time, G.P. Kuiper. 

It was from Kuiper that I first got a feeling for what is called a 
back-of-the-envelope calculation: a possible explanation to a 
problem occurs to you, you pull out an old envelope, appeal to 
your knowledge of fundamental physics, scribble a few approxi- 
mate equations on the envelope, substitute in likely numerical 


My Teachers 

values, and see if your answer comes anywhere near explaining 
your problem. If not, you look for a different explanation. It cut 
through nonsense like a knife through butter. 

At the University of Chicago I also was lucky enough to go 
through a general education programme devised by Robert M. 
Hutchins, where science was presented as an integral part of the 
gorgeous tapestry of human knowledge. It was considered 
unthinkable for an aspiring physicist not to know Plato, Aristotle, 
Bach, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Malinowski and Freud - among 
many others. In an introductory science class, Ptolemy's view that 
the Sun revolved around the Earth was presented so compellingly 
that some students found themselves re-evaluating their commit- 
ment to Copernicus. The status of the teachers in the Hutchins 
curriculum had almost nothing to do with their research; per- 
versely - unlike the American university standard of today - 
teachers were valued for their teaching, their ability to inform and 
inspire the next generation. 

In this heady atmosphere, I was able to fill in some of the many 
gaps in my education. Much that had been deeply mysterious, and 
not just in science, became clearer. I also witnessed at first hand 
the joy felt by those whose privilege it is to uncover a little about 
how the Universe works. 

I've always been grateful to my mentors of the 1950s, and tried 
to make sure that each of them knew my appreciation. But as I 
look back, it seems clear to me that I learned the most essential 
things not from my school teachers, nor even from my university 
professors, but from my parents, who knew nothing at all about 
science, in that single far-off year of 1939. 



The Most Precious Thing 

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and 
childlike - and yet it is the most precious thing we have. 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) 

As I got off the plane, he was waiting for me, holding up a 
scrap of cardboard with my name scribbled on it. I was on 
my way to a conference of scientists and TV broadcasters devoted 
to the seemingly hopeless prospect of improving the presentation 
of science on commercial television. The organizers had kindly 
sent a driver. 

'Do you mind if I ask you a question?' he said as we waited for 
my bag. 

No, I didn't mind. 

'Isn't it confusing to have the same name as that scientist guy?' 
It took me a moment to understand. Was he pulling my leg? 
Finally, it dawned on me. 

'I am that scientist guy,' I answered. 

He paused and then smiled. 'Sorry. That's my problem. I 
thought it was yours too.' 

He put out his hand. 'My name is William F. Buckley.' (Well, 
he wasn't exactly William F. Buckley, but he did bear the name of 
a contentious and well-known TV interviewer, for which he 
doubtless took a lot of good-natured ribbing.) 

As we settled into the car for the long drive, the windshield 


The Most Precious Thing 

wipers rhythmically thwacking, he told me he was glad I was 'that 
scientist guy' - he had so many questions to ask about science. 
Would I mind? 
No, I didn't mind. 

And so we got to talking. But not, as it turned out, about 
science. He wanted to talk about frozen extraterrestrials languish- 
ing in an Air Force base near San Antonio, 'channelling' (a way to 
hear what's on the minds of dead people - not much, it turns out), 
crystals, the prophecies of Nostradamus, astrology, the shroud of 
Turin ... He introduced each portentous subject with buoyant 
enthusiasm. Each time I had to disappoint him: 

'The evidence is crummy,' I kept saying. 'There's a much 
simpler explanation.' 

He was, in a way, widely read. He knew the various speculative 
nuances on, let's say, the 'sunken continents' of Atlantis and 
Lemuria. He had at his fingertips what underwater expeditions 
were supposedly just setting out to find the tumbled columns and 
broken minarets of a once-great civilization whose remains were 
now visited only by deep sea luminescent fish and giant kraken. 
Except . . . while the ocean keeps many secrets, I knew that there 
isn't a trace of oceanographic or geophysical support for Atlantis 
and Lemuria. As far as science can tell, they never existed. By 
now a little reluctantly, I told him so. 

As we drove through the rain, I could see him getting glummer 
and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a 
precious facet of his inner life. 

And yet there's so much in real science that's equally exciting, 
more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge - as well as being 
a lot closer to the truth. Did he know about the molecular building 
blocks of life sitting out there in the cold, tenuous gas between the 
stars? Had he heard of the footprints of our ancestors found in 
4-million-year-old volcanic ash? What about the raising of the 
Himalayas when India went crashing into Asia? Or how viruses, 
built like hypodermic syringes, slip their DNA past the host 
organism's defences and subvert the reproductive machinery of 
cells; or the radio search for extraterrestrial intelligence; or the 
newly discovered ancient civilization of Ebla that advertised the 
virtues of Ebla beer? No, he hadn't heard. Nor did he know, even 



vaguely, about quantum indeterminacy, and he recognized DNA 
only as three frequently linked capital letters. 

Mr 'Buckley' - well-spoken, intelligent, curious - had heard 
virtually nothing of modern science. He had a natural appetite for 
the wonders of the Universe. He wanted to know about science. 
It's just that all the science had gotten filtered out before it 
reached him. Our cultural motifs, our educational system, our 
communications media had failed this man. What society permit- 
ted to trickle through was mainly pretence and confusion. It had 
never taught him how to distinguish real science from the cheap 
imitation. He knew nothing about how science works. 

There are hundreds of books about Atlantis - the mythical 
continent that is said to have existed something like 10,000 years 
ago in the Atlantic Ocean. (Or somewhere. A recent book locates 
it in Antarctica.) The story goes back to Plato, who reported it as 
hearsay coming down to him from remote ages. Recent books 
authoritatively describe the high level of Atlantean technology, 
morals and spirituality, and the great tragedy of an entire popu- 
lated continent sinking beneath the waves. There is a 'New Age' 
Atlantis, 'the legendary civilization of advanced sciences,' chiefly 
devoted to the 'science' of crystals. In a trilogy called Crystal 
Enlightenment by Katrina Raphaell - the books mainly responsi- 
ble for the crystal craze in America - Atlantean crystals read 
minds, transmit thoughts, are the repositories of ancient history 
and the model and source of the pyramids of Egypt. Nothing 
approximating evidence is offered to support these assertions. (A 
resurgence of crystal mania may follow the recent finding by the 
real science of seismology that the inner core of the Earth may be 
composed of a single, huge, nearly perfect crystal - of iron.) 

A few books - Dorothy Vitaliano's Legends of the Earth, for 
example - sympathetically interpret the original Atlantis legends 
in terms of a small island in the Mediterranean that was destroyed 
by a volcanic eruption, or an ancient city that slid into the Gulf of 
Corinth after an earthquake. This, for all we know, may be the 
source of the legend, but it is a far cry from the destruction of a 
continent on which had sprung forth a preternaturally advanced 
technical and mystical civilization. 

What we almost never find - in public libraries or newsstand 


The Most Precious Thing 

magazines or prime-time television programmes - is the evidence 
from sea floor spreading and plate tectonics, and from mapping 
the ocean floor which shows quite unmistakably that there could 
have been no continent between Europe and the Americas on 
anything like the timescale proposed. 

Spurious accounts that snare, the gullible are readily available. 
Sceptical treatments are much harder to find. Scepticism does not 
sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on 
popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is 
hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable 
treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment. 

Maybe Mr Buckley should know to be more sceptical about 
what's dished out to him by popular culture. But apart from that, 
it's hard to see how it's his fault. He simply accepted what the 
most widely available and accessible sources of information 
claimed was true. For his naivete, he was systematically misled 
and bamboozled. 

Science arouses a soaring sense of wonder. But so does pseudo- 
science. Sparse and poor popularizations of science abandon 
ecological niches that pseudoscience promptly fills. If it were 
widely understood that claims to knowledge require adequate 
evidence before they can be accepted, there would be no room for 
pseudoscience. But a kind of Gresham's Law prevails in popular 
culture by which bad science drives out good. 

All over the world there are enormous numbers of smart, even 
gifted, people who harbour a passion for science. But that passion 
is unrequited. Surveys suggest that some 95 per cent of Americans 
are 'scientifically illiterate'. That's just the same fraction as those 
African Americans, almost all of them slaves, who were illiterate 
just before the Civil War - when severe penalties were in force for 
anyone who taught a slave to read. Of course there's a degree of 
arbitrariness about any determination of illiteracy, whether it 
applies to language or to science. But anything like 95 per cent 
illiteracy is extremely serious. 

Every generation worries that educational standards are decay- 
ing. One of the oldest short essays in human history, dating from 
Sumer some 4,000 years ago, laments that the young are disas- 
trously more ignorant than the generation immediately preceding. 



Twenty-four hundred years ago, the ageing and grumpy Plato, in 
Book VII of the Laws, gave his definition of scientific illiteracy: 

Who is unable to count one, two, three, or to distinguish odd 
from even numbers, or is unable to count at all, or reckon 
night and day, and who is totally unacquainted with the 
revolution of the Sun and Moon, and the other stars . . . All 
freemen, I conceive, should learn as much of these branches 
of knowledge as every child in Egypt is taught when he learns 
the alphabet. In that country arithmetical games have been 
invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as 
pleasure and amusement . . . I . . . have late in life heard 
with amazement of our ignorance in these matters; to me we 
appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite 
ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks. 

I don't know to what extent ignorance of science and mathematics 
contributed to the decline of ancient Athens, but I know that the 
consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our 
time than in any that has come before. It's perilous and foolhardy 
for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, 
say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive 
wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponen- 
tial population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and 
technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and 
low price, products people want to buy, then industries will 
continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to 
other parts of the world. Consider the social ramifications of 
fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data 'highways', abor- 
tion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, 
government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high- 
resolution TV, airline and airport safety, foetal tissue transplants, 
health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depres- 
sion or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning- 
after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial predispositions, space 
stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer. 

How can we affect national policy - or even make intelligent 
decisions in our own lives - if we don't grasp the underlying 


The Most Precious Thing 

issues? As I write, Congress is dissolving its own Office of 
Technology Assessment - the only organization specifically tasked 
to provide advice to the House and Senate on science and 
technology. Its competence and integrity over the years have been 
exemplary. Of the 535 members of the US Congress, rarely in the 
twentieth century have as many as one per cent had any significant 
background in science. The last scientifically literate President 
may have been Thomas Jefferson.* 

So how do Americans decide these matters? How do they 
instruct their representatives? Who in fact makes these decisions, 
and on what basis? 

Hippocrates of Cos is the father of medicine. He is still remembered 
2,500 years later for the Hippocratic Oath (a modified form of which 
is still here and there taken by medical students upon their gradua- 
tion). But he is chiefly celebrated because of his efforts to bring 
medicine out of the pall of superstition and into the light of science. 
In a typical passage Hippocrates wrote: 'Men think epilepsy divine, 
merely because they do not understand it. But if they called 
everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would 
be no end of divine things.' Instead of acknowledging that in many 
areas we are ignorant, we have tended to say things like the Universe 
is permeated with the ineffable. A God of the Gaps is assigned 
responsibility for what we do not yet understand. As knowledge of 
medicine improved since the fourth century BC, there was more and 
more that we understood and less and less that had to be attributed 
to divine intervention - either in the causes or in the treatment of 
disease. Deaths in childbirth and infant mortality have decreased, 
lifetimes have lengthened, and medicine has improved the quality of 
life for billions of us all over the planet. 

In the diagnosis of disease, Hippocrates introduced elements 
of the scientific method. He urged careful and meticulous 

* Although claims can be made for Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and 
Jimmy Carter. Britain had such a Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher. Her 
early studies in chemistry, in part under the tutelage of Nobel laureate Dorothy 
Hodgkin, were key to the UK's strong and successful advocacy that ozone- 
depleting CFCs be banned worldwide. 



observation: 'Leave nothing to chance. Overlook nothing. 
Combine contradictory observations. Allow yourself enough 
time.' Before the invention of the thermometer, he charted the 
temperature curves of many diseases. He recommended that 
physicians be able to tell, from present symptoms alone, the 
probable past and future course of each illness. He stressed 
honesty. He was willing to admit the limitations of the physician's 
knowledge. He betrayed no embarrassment in confiding to poster- 
ity that more than half his patients were killed by the diseases he 
was treating. His options of course were limited; the drugs 
available to him were chiefly laxatives, emetics and narcotics. 
Surgery was performed, and cauterization. Considerable further 
advances were made in classical times through to the fall of Rome. 

While medicine in the Islamic world flourished, what followed 
in Europe was truly a dark age. Much knowledge of anatomy and 
surgery was lost. Reliance on prayer and miraculous healing 
abounded. Secular physicians became extinct. Chants, potions, 
horoscopes and amulets were widely used. Dissections of cadavers 
were restricted or outlawed, so those who practised medicine were 
prevented from acquiring first-hand knowledge of the human 
body. Medical research came to a standstill. 

It was very like what the historian Edward Gibbon described for 
the entire Eastern Empire, whose capital was Constantinople: 

In the revolution often centuries, not a single discovery was 
made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. 
Not a single idea had been added to the speculative systems of 
antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their 
turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. 

Even at its best, pre-modern medical practice did not save many. 
Queen Anne was the last Stuart monarch of Great Britain. In the last 
seventeen years of the seventeenth century, she was pregnant 
eighteen times. Only five children were born alive. Only one of them 
survived infancy. He died before reaching adulthood, and before her 
coronation in 1702. There seems to be no evidence of some genetic 
disorder. She had the best medical care money could buy. 

Diseases that once tragically carried off countless infants and 


The Most Precious Thing 

children have been progressively mitigated and cured by science - 
through the discovery of the microbial world, via the insight that 
physicians and midwives should wash their hands and sterilize 
their instruments, through nutrition, public health and sanitation 
measures, antibiotics, drugs, vaccines, the uncovering of the 
molecular structure of DNA, molecular biology, and now gene 
therapy. In the developed world at least, parents today have an 
enormously better chance of seeing their children live to adult- 
hood than did the heir to the throne of one of the most powerful 
nations on Earth in the late seventeenth century. Smallpox has been 
wiped out worldwide. The area of our planet infested with malaria- 
carrying mosquitoes has dramatically shrunk. The number of years a 
child diagnosed with leukaemia can expect to live has been increas- 
ing progressively, year by year. Science permits the Earth to feed 
about a hundred times more humans, and under conditions much 
less grim, than it could a few thousand years ago. 

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 
milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours. (There is still a 
religion, Christian Science, that denies the germ theory of disease; if 
prayer fails, the faithful would rather see their children die than give 
them antibiotics.) We can try nearly futile psychoanalytic talk 
therapy on the schizophrenic patient, or we can give him 300 to 500 
milligrams a day of chlozapine. The scientific treatments are hun- 
dreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. 
(And even when the alternatives seem to work, we don't actually 
know that they played any role: spontaneous remissions, even of 
cholera and schizophrenia, can occur without prayer and without 
psychoanalysis.) Abandoning science means abandoning much more 
than air conditioning, CD players, hair dryers and fast cars. 

In hunter-gatherer, pre-agricultural times, the human life 
expectancy was about 20 to 30 years. That's also what it was in 
Western Europe in Late Roman and in Medieval times. It didn't 
rise to 40 years until around the year 1870. It reached 50 in 1915, 
60 in 1930, 70 in 1955, and is today approaching 80 (a little more 
for women, a little less for men). The rest of the world is retracing 
the European increment in longevity. What is the cause of this 
stunning, unprecedented, humanitarian transition? The germ 
theory of disease, public health measures, medicines and medical 



technology. Longevity is perhaps the best single measure of the 
physical quality of life. (If you're dead, there's little you can do to 
be happy.) This is a precious offering from science to humanity - 
nothing less than the gift of life. 

But micro-organisms mutate. New diseases spread like wildfire. 
There is a constant battle between microbial measures and human 
countermeasures. We keep pace in this competition not just by 
designing new drugs and treatments, but by penetrating progres- 
sively more deeply toward an understanding of the nature of life - 
basic research. 

If the world is to escape the direst consequences of global 
population growth and 10 or 12 billion people on the planet in the 
late twenty-first century, we must invent safe but more efficient 
means of growing food - with accompanying seed stocks, irrigation, 
fertilizers, pesticides, transportation and refrigeration systems. It will 
also take widely available and acceptable contraception, significant 
steps toward political equality of women, and improvements in the 
standards of living of the poorest people. How can all this be 
accomplished without science and technology? 

I know that science and technology are not just cornucopias 
pouring gifts out into the world. Scientists not only conceived 
nuclear weapons; they also took political leaders by the lapels, 
arguing that their nation - whichever it happened to be - had to 
have one first. Then they manufactured over 60,000 of them. 
During the Cold War, scientists in the United States, the Soviet 
Union, China and other nations were willing to expose their own 
fellow citizens to radiation - in most cases without their know- 
ledge - to prepare for nuclear war. Physicians in Tuskegee, 
Alabama, misled a group of veterans into thinking they were 
receiving medical treatment for their syphilis, when they were the 
untreated controls. The atrocious cruelties of Nazi doctors are 
well-known. Our technology has produced thalidomide, CFCs, 
Agent Orange, nerve gas, pollution of air and water, species 
extinctions, and industries so powerful they can ruin the climate of 
the planet. Roughly half the scientists on Earth work at least 
part-time for the military. While a few scientists are still perceived 
as outsiders, courageously criticizing the ills of society and provid- 
ing early warnings of potential technological catastrophes, many 


The Most Precious Thing 

are seen as compliant opportunists, or as the willing source of 
corporate profits and weapons of mass destruction - never mind 
the long-term consequences. The technological perils that science 
serves up, its implicit challenge to received wisdom, and its 
perceived difficulty, are all reasons for some people to mistrust 
and avoid it. There's a reason people are nervous about science 
and technology. And so the image of the mad scientist haunts our 
world - down to the white-coated loonies of Saturday morning 
children's TV and the plethora of Faustian bargains in popular 
culture, from the eponymous Dr Faustus himself to Dr Franken- 
stein, Dr Strangelove, and Jurassic Park. 

But we can't simply conclude that science puts too much power 
into the hands of morally feeble technologists or corrupt, power- 
crazed politicians and so decide to get rid of it. Advances in 
medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have 
been lost in all the wars in history.* Advances in transportation, 
communication and entertainment have transformed and unified 
the world. In opinion poll after opinion poll science is rated 
among the most admired and trusted occupations, despite the 
misgivings. The sword of science is double-edged. Its awesome 
power forces on all of us, including politicians, a new responsibil- 
ity - more attention to the long-term consequences of technology, 
a global and transgenerational perspective, an incentive to avoid 
easy appeals to nationalism and chauvinism. Mistakes are becoming 
too expensive. 

Do we care what's true? Does it matter? 

. . . where ignorance is bliss, 
'Tis folly to be wise 

wrote the poet Thomas Gray. But is it? Edmund Way Teale in his 
1950 book Circle of the Seasons understood the dilemma better: 

* At a large dinner party recently, I asked the assembled guests - ranging in age, 
I guess, from thirties to sixties - how many of them would be alive today if not 
for antibiotics, cardiac pacemakers, and the rest of the panoply of modern 
medicine. Only one hand went up. It was not mine. 



It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, 
so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you 
got your money as long as you have got it. 

It's disheartening to discover government corruption and incom- 
petence, for example; but it is better not to know about it? Whose 
interest does ignorance serve? If we humans bear, say, hereditary 
propensities toward the hatred of strangers, isn't self-knowledge 
the only antidote? If we long to believe that the stars rise and set 
for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do 
us a disservice in deflating our conceits? 

In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, as so many 
before and after, decries the 'unbroken progress in the self- 
belittling of man' brought about by the scientific revolution. 
Nietzsche mourns the loss of 'man's belief in his dignity, his 
uniqueness, his irreplaceability in the scheme of existence'. For 
me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to 
persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which 
attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives 
us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence 
is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? 
Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character- 
building experience? 

To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion and not 6 to 
12 thousand years old* improves our appreciation of its sweep and 
grandeur; to entertain the notion that we are a particularly 
complex arrangement of atoms, and not some breath of divinity, 
at the very least enhances our respect for atoms; to discover, as 
now seems probable, that our planet is one of billions of other 
worlds in the Milky Way galaxy and that our galaxy is one of 
billions more, majestically expands the arena of what is possible; 

* 'No thinking religious person believes this. Old hat,' writes one of the referees 
of this book. But many 'scientific creationists' not only believe it, but are 
making increasingly aggressive and successful efforts to have it taught in the 
schools, museums, zoos, and textbooks. Why? Because adding up the 'begats', 
the ages of patriarchs and others in the Bible gives such a figure, and the Bible 
is 'inerrant'. 


The Most Precious Thing 

to find that our ancestors were also the ancestors of apes ties us to 
the rest of life and makes possible important - if occasionally 
rueful - reflections on human nature. 

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with 
science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come 
to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we 
will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have 
made a bargain strongly in our favour. 

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, 
distracting all the 'Buckleys' among us, providing easy answers, 
dodging sceptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and 
cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable 
practitioners as well as victims of credulity. Yes, the world would 
be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep 
waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people 
could take control of our hands and write us messages. It would be 
fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets 
rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them, or if our dreams 
could, more often than can be explained by chance and our 
knowledge of the world, accurately foretell the future. 

These are all instances of pseudoscience. They purport to use 
the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless 
to its nature - often because they are based on insufficient 
evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. 
They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation 
(and often the cynical connivance) of newspapers, magazines, 
book publishers, radio, television, movie producers and the like, 
such ideas are easily and widely available. Far more difficult to 
come upon, as I was reminded by my encounter with Mr 'Buckley', 
are the alternative, more challenging and even more dazzling 
findings of science. 

Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because dis- 
tracting confrontations with reality - where we cannot control the 
outcome of the comparison - are more readily avoided. The 
standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more 
relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to 
present pseudoscience to the general public than science. But this 
isn't enough to explain its popularity. 



Naturally people try various belief systems on for size, to see if 
they help. And if we're desperate enough, we become all too 
willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of 
scepticism. Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs 
that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about 
personal powers we lack and long for (like those attributed to 
comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods). In some 
of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, 
cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures 
us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we 
are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe.* Sometimes it's a kind 
of halfway house between old religion and new science, mistrusted 
by both. 

At the heart of some pseudoscience (and some religion also, 
New Age and Old) is the idea that wishing makes it so. How 
satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children's stories, to fulfil 
our heart's desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, 
especially when compared with the hard work and good luck 
usually required to achieve our hopes. The enchanted fish or the 
genie from the lamp will grant us three wishes - anything we want 
except more wishes. Who has not pondered - just to be on the safe 
side, just in case we ever come upon and accidentally rub an old, 
squat brass oil lamp - what to ask for? 

I remember, from childhood comic strips and books, a top- 
hatted, moustachioed magician who brandished an ebony walking 
stick. His name was Zatara. He could make anything happen, 
anything at all. How did he do it? Easy. He uttered his commands 
backwards. So if he wanted a million dollars, he would say 'srallod 
noillim a em evig'. That's all there was to it. It was something like 
prayer, but much surer of results. 

I spent a lot of time at age eight experimenting in this vein, 

* Although it's hard for me to see a more profound cosmic connection than the 
astonishing findings of modern nuclear astrophysics: except for hydrogen, all 
the atoms that make each of us up - the iron in our blood, the calcium in our 
bones, the carbon in our brains - were manufactured in red giant stars 
thousands of light years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, 
as I like to say, starstuff. 


The Most Precious Thing 

commanding stones to levitate: 'esir, enots.' It never worked. I 
blamed my pronunciation. 

Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact propor- 
tion as real science is misunderstood - except that the language 
breaks down here. If you've never heard of science (to say nothing 
of how it works), you can hardly be aware you're embracing 
pseudoscience. You're simply thinking in one of the ways that 
humans always have. Religions are often the state-protected 
nurseries of pseudoscience, although there's no reason why reli- 
gions have to play that role. In a way, it's an artefact from times 
long gone. In some countries nearly everyone believes in astrology 
and precognition, including government leaders. But this is not 
simply drummed into them by religion; it is drawn out of the 
enveloping culture in which everyone is comfortable with these 
practices, and affirming testimonials are everywhere. 

Most of the case histories I will relate in this book are 
American - because these are the cases I know best, not 
because pseudoscience and mysticism are more prominent in 
the United States than elsewhere. But the psychic spoonbender 
and extraterrestrial channeller Uri Geller hails from Israel. As 
tensions rise between Algerian secularists and Muslim funda- 
mentalists, more and more people are discreetly consulting the 
country's 10,000 soothsayers and clairvoyants (about half of 
whom operate with a licence from the government). High 
French officials, including a former President of France, 
arranged for millions of dollars to be invested in a scam (the 
Elf-Aquitaine scandal) to find new petroleum reserves from 
the air. In Germany, there is concern about carcinogenic 'Earth 
rays' undetectable by science; they can be sensed only by 
experienced dowsers brandishing forked sticks. 'Psychic sur- 
gery' flourishes in the Philippines. Ghosts are something of a 
national obsession in Britain. Since World War Two, Japan has 
spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the 
supernatural. An estimated 100,000 fortune-tellers flourish in 
Japan; the clientele are mainly young women. Aum Shinrikyo, 
a sect thought to be involved in the release of the nerve gas 
sarin in the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, features 



levitation, faith healing and ESP among its main tenets. 
Followers, at a high price, drank the 'miracle pond' water - 
from the bath of Asahara, their leader. In Thailand, diseases 
are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized sacred 
Scripture. 'Witches' are today being burned in South Africa. 
Australian peace-keeping forces in Haiti rescue a woman tied 
to a tree; she is accused of flying from rooftop to rooftop, and 
sucking the blood of children. Astrology is rife in India, 
geomancy widespread in China. 

Perhaps the most successful recent global pseudoscience - by 
many criteria, already a religion - is the Hindu doctrine of 
transcendental meditation (TM). The soporific homilies of its 
founder and spiritual leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, can be 
seen on television in America. Seated in the yogi position, his 
white hair here and there flecked with black, surrounded by 
garlands and floral offerings, he has a look. One day while 
channel surfing we came upon this visage. 'You know who that 
is?' asked our four-year-old son. 'God.' The worldwide TM 
organization has an estimated valuation of $3 billion. For a fee 
they promise through meditation to be able to walk you through 
walls, to make you invisible, to enable you to fly. By thinking in 
unison they have, they say, diminished the crime rate in Washing- 
ton DC and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other 
secular miracles. Not one smattering of real evidence has been 
offered for any such claims. TM sells folk medicine, runs trading 
companies, medical clinics and 'research' universities, and has 
unsuccessfully entered politics. In its oddly charismatic leader, its 
promise of community, and the offer of magical powers in 
exchange for money and fervent belief, it is typical of many 
pseudosciences marketed for sacerdotal export. 

At each relinquishing of civil controls and scientific education, 
another little spurt in pseudoscience occurs. Leon Trotsky described 
it for Germany on the eve of the Hitler takeover (but in a description 
that might equally have applied to the Soviet Union of 1933): 

Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there 
lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hun- 
dred million people use electricity and still believe in the 


The Most Precious Thing 

magic powers of signs and exorcisms . . . Movie stars go to 
mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created 
by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What 
inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance 
and savagery! 

Russia is an instructive case. Under the Tsars, religious supersti- 
tion was encouraged, but scientific and sceptical thinking - except 
by a few tame scientists - was ruthlessly expunged. Under 
Communism, both religion and pseudoscience were systematically 
suppressed - except for the superstition of the state ideological 
religion. It was advertised as scientific, but fell as far short of this 
ideal as the most unself-critical mystery cult. Critical thinking - 
except by scientists in hermetically sealed compartments of know- 
ledge - was recognized as dangerous, was not taught in the 
schools, and was punished where expressed. As a result, post- 
Communism, many Russians view science with suspicion. When 
the lid was lifted, as was also true of virulent ethnic hatreds, what 
had all along been bubbling subsurface was exposed to view. The 
region is now awash in UFOs, poltergeists, faith healers, quack 
medicines, magic waters and old-time superstition. A stunning 
decline in life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant 
epidemic disease, subminimal medical standards and ignorance of 
preventive medicine all work to raise the threshold at which 
scepticism is triggered in an increasingly desperate population. As 
I write, the electorally most popular member of the Duma, a 
leading supporter of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is 
one Anatoly Kashpirovsky - a faith healer who remotely cures 
diseases ranging from hernias to AIDS by glaring at you out of 
your television set. His face starts stopped clocks. 

A somewhat analogous situation exists in China. After the 
death of Mao Zedong and the gradual emergence of a market 
economy, UFOs, channelling and other examples of Western 
pseudoscience emerged, along with such ancient Chinese practices 
as ancestor worship, astrology and fortune telling - especially that 
version that involves throwing yarrow sticks and working through 
the hoary tetragrams of the / Ching. The government newspaper 
lamented that 'the superstition of feudal ideology is reviving in our 



countryside'. It was (and remains) a rural, not primarily an urban, 

Individuals with 'special powers' gained enormous follow- 
ings. They could, they said, project Qi, the 'energy field of the 
Universe', out of their bodies to change the molecular structure 
of a chemical 2,000 kilometres away, to communicate with 
aliens, to cure diseases. Some patients died under the ministra- 
tions of one of these 'masters of Qi Gong' who was arrested and 
convicted in 1993. Wang Hongcheng, an amateur chemist, 
claimed to have synthesized a liquid, small amounts of which, 
when added to water, would convert it to gasoline or the 
equivalent. For a time he was funded by the army and the secret 
police, but when his invention was found to be a scam he was 
arrested and imprisoned. Naturally the story spread that his 
misfortune resulted not from fraud, but from his unwillingness 
to reveal his 'secret formula' to the government. (Similar 
stories have circulated in America for decades, usually with the 
government role replaced by a major oil or auto company.) 
Asian rhinos are being driven to extinction because their horns, 
when pulverized, are said to prevent impotence; the market 
encompasses all of East Asia. 

The government of China and the Chinese Communist Party 
were alarmed by certain of these developments. On 5 December 
1994, they issued a joint proclamation that read in part: 

[PJublic education in science has been withering in recent 
years. At the same time, activities of superstition and igno- 
rance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience 
cases have become frequent. Therefore, effective measures 
must be applied as soon as possible to strengthen public 
education in science. The level of public education in science 
and technology is an important sign of the national scientific 
accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in 
economic development, scientific advance, and the progress 
of society. We must be attentive and implement such public 
education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist 
country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. 
Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty. 


The Most Precious Thing 

So pseudoscience in America is part of a global trend. Its causes, 
dangers, diagnosis and treatment are likely to be similar every- 
where. Here, psychics ply their wares on extended television 
commercials, personally endorsed by entertainers. They have 
their own channel, the 'Psychic Friends Network'; a million 
people a year sign on and use such guidance in their everyday 
lives. For the chief executives of major corporations, for financial 
analysts, for lawyers and bankers there is a species of astrologer/ 
soothsayer/psychic ready to advise on any matter. 'If people knew 
how many people, especially the very rich and powerful ones, 
went to psychics, their jaws would drop through the floor,' says a 
psychic from Cleveland, Ohio. Royalty has traditionally been 
vulnerable to psychic frauds. In ancient China and Rome astrol- 
ogy was the exclusive property of the emperor; any private use of 
this potent art was considered a capital offence. Emerging from a 
particularly credulous Southern California culture, Nancy and 
Ronald Reagan relied on an astrologer in private and public 
matters - unknown to the voting public. Some portion of the 
decision-making that influences the future of our civilization is 
plainly in the hands of charlatans. If anything, the practice is 
comparatively muted in America; its venue is worldwide. 

As amusing as some of pseudoscience may seem, as confident as 
we may be that we would never be so gullible as to be swept up by 
such a doctrine, we know it's happening all around us. Transcen- 
dental meditation and Aum Shinrikyo seem to have attracted a 
large number of accomplished people, some with advanced 
degrees in physics or engineering. These are not doctrines for 
nitwits. Something else is going on. 

What's more, no one interested in what religions are and how 
they begin can ignore them. While vast barriers may seem to 
stretch between a local, single-focus contention of pseudoscience 
and something like a world religion, the partitions are very thin. 
The world presents us with nearly insurmountable problems. A 
wide variety of solutions are offered, some of very limited 
worldview, some of portentous sweep. In the usual Darwinian 
natural selection of doctrines, some thrive for a time, while most 
quickly vanish. But a few - sometimes, as history has shown, the 



most scruffy and least prepossessing among them - may have the 
power to change profoundly the history of the world. 

The continuum stretching from ill-practised science, pseudo- 
science and superstition (New Age or Old), all the way to 
respectable mystery religion, based on revelation, is indistinct. I 
try not to use the word 'cult' in this book in its usual meaning of a 
religion the speaker dislikes, but try to reach for the headstone of 
knowledge - do they really know what they claim to know? 
Everyone, it turns out, has relevant expertise. 

In certain passages of this book I will be critical of the excesses 
of theology, because at the extremes it is difficult to distinguish 
pseudoscience from rigid, doctrinaire religion. Nevertheless, I 
want to acknowledge at the outset the prodigious diversity and 
complexity of religious thought and practice over the millennia; 
the growth of liberal religion and ecumenical fellowship during the 
last century; and the fact that - as in the Protestant Reformation, 
the rise of Reform Judaism, Vatican II, and the so-called higher 
criticism of the Bible - religion has fought (with varying degrees of 
success) its own excesses. But in parallel to the many scientists 
who seem reluctant to debate or even publicly discuss pseudo- 
science, many proponents of mainstream religions are reluctant to 
take on extreme conservatives and fundamentalists. If the trend 
continues, eventually the field is theirs; they can win the debate by 

One religious leader writes to me of his longing for 'disciplined 
integrity' in religion: 

We have grown far too sentimental . . . Devotionalism and 
cheap psychology on one side, and arrogance and dogmatic 
intolerance on the other distort authentic religious life almost 
beyond recognition. Sometimes I come close to despair, but 
then I live tenaciously and always with hope . . . Honest 
religion, more familiar than its critics with the distortions and 
absurdities perpetrated in its name, has an active interest in 
encouraging a healthy skepticism for its own purposes . . . 
There is the possibility for religion and science to forge a 
potent partnership against pseudo-science. Strangely, I think 
it would soon be engaged also in opposing pseudo-religion. 

The Most Precious Thing 

Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on 
errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn 
all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are 
framed so they are capable of being disproved. A succession of 
alternative hypotheses is confronted by experiment and observa- 
tion. Science gropes and staggers toward improved understand- 
ing. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific 
hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as 
central to the scientific enterprise. 

Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypotheses are often framed 
precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a 
prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. 
Practitioners are defensive and wary. Sceptical scrutiny is opposed. 
When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scien- 
tists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced. 

Motor ability in healthy people is almost perfect. We rarely 
stumble and fall, except in young and old age. We can learn tasks 
such as riding a bicycle or skating or skipping, jumping rope or 
driving a car, and retain that mastery for the rest of our lives. 
Even if we've gone a decade without doing it, it comes back to us 
effortlessly. The precision and retention of our motor skills may, 
however, give us a false sense of confidence in our other talents. 
Our perceptions are fallible. We sometimes see what isn't there. 
We are prey to optical illusions. Occasionally we hallucinate. We 
are error-prone. A most illuminating book called How We Know 
What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, 
by Thomas Gilovich, shows how people systematically err in 
understanding numbers, in rejecting unpleasant evidence, in being 
influenced by the opinions of others. We're good in some things, but 
not in everything. Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations. 'For 
Man is a giddy thing,' teaches William Shakespeare. That's where 
the stuffy sceptical rigour of science comes in. 

Perhaps the sharpest distinction between science and pseudo- 
science is that science has a far keener appreciation of human 
imperfections and fallibility than does pseudoscience (or 'inerrant' 
revelation). If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are 
liable to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error - 
even serious error, profound mistakes - will be our companion 



forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self- 
assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our 
chances improve enormously. 

If we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter 
how useful and even inspiring they may be - without communicat- 
ing its critical method, how can the average person possibly 
distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented 
as unsupported assertion. In Russia and China, it used to be easy. 
Authoritative science was what the authorities taught. The distinc- 
tion between science and pseudoscience was made for you. No 
perplexities needed to be muddled through. But when profound 
political changes occurred and strictures on free thought were 
loosened, a host of confident or charismatic claims - especially 
those that told us what we wanted to hear - gained a vast 
following. Every notion, however improbable, became authorita- 

It is a supreme challenge for the popularizer of science to make 
clear the actual, tortuous history of its great discoveries and the 
misapprehensions and occasional stubborn refusal by its practi- 
tioners to change course. Many, perhaps most, science textbooks 
for budding scientists tread lightly here. It is enormously easier to 
present in an appealing way the wisdom distilled from centuries of 
patient and collective interrogation of Nature than to detail the 
messy distillation apparatus. The method of science, as stodgy and 
grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of 



Science and Hope 

Two men came to a hole in the sky. One asked the other to 
lift him up . . . But so beautiful was it in heaven that the 
man who looked in over the edge forgot everything, forgot 
his companion whom he had promised to help up and simply 
ran off into all the splendour of heaven. 

from an Iglulik Inuit prose poem, 
early twentieth century, told by Inugpasugjuk to 
Knud Rasmussen, the Greenlandic arctic explorer 

I was a child in a time of hope. I wanted to be a scientist from my 
earliest school days. The crystallizing moment came when I first 
caught on that the stars are mighty suns, when it first dawned on me 
how staggeringly far away they must be to appear as mere points of 
light in the sky. I'm not sure I even knew the meaning of the word 
'science' then, but I wanted somehow to immerse myself in all that 
grandeur. I was gripped by the splendour of the Universe, transfixed 
by the prospect of understanding how things really work, of helping 
to uncover deep mysteries, of exploring new worlds - maybe even 
literally. It has been my good fortune to have had that dream in part 
fulfilled. For me, the romance of science remains as appealing and 
new as it was on that day, more than half a century ago, when I was 
shown the wonders of the 1939 World's Fair. 

Popularizing science - trying to make its methods and 
findings accessible to non-scientists - then follows naturally and 



immediately. Not explaining science seems to me perverse. 
When you're in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a 
personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with 

But there's another reason: science is more than a body of 
knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an 
America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the 
United States is a service and information economy; when nearly 
all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other 
countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of 
a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even 
grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their 
own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, 
clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, 
our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what 
feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back 
into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is 
most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the 
enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now 
down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator 
programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and 
superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As 
I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the 
movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular 
(and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that 
study and learning - not just of science, but of anything - are 
avoidable, even undesirable. 

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial 
elements - transportation, communications, and all other indus- 
tries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting 
the environment; and even the key democratic institution of 
voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have 
also arranged things so that almost no one understands science 
and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get 
away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible 
mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces. 

A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely 
Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 


Science and Hope 

1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam 'to 
delude the people'. Any illness or storm, anything out of the 
ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must 
exist, Ady quoted the 'witchmongers' as arguing, 'else how should 
these things be, or come to pass?' For much of our history, we 
were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable 
dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to 
soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely 
successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get 
hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and 
meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was 
considered sufficient cause to burn women to death. 

Ady also warned of the danger that 'the Nations [will] perish for 
lack of knowledge'. Avoidable human misery is more often caused 
not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our 
ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millen- 
nium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year 
by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous 
and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our 
ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, 
during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we 
agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when 
fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought 
familiar from ages past reach for the controls. 

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. 
Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir. 

There is much that science doesn't understand, many mysteries 
still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light years 
across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the 
case forever. We are constantly stumbling on surprises. Yet some 
New Age and religious writers assert that scientists believe that 
'what they find is all there is'. Scientists may reject mystic 
revelations for which there is no evidence except somebody's 
say-so, but they hardly believe their knowledge of Nature to be 

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just 
the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it's like 



democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human 
action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of 
alternative courses of action. 

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and 
disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let 
the facts in, even when they don't conform to our preconceptions. 
It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see 
which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between 
no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and 
the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything - new ideas and 
established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool 
for a democracy in an age of change. 

One of the reasons for its success is that science has built-in, 
error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider 
this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we 
exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the 
outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent 
and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into 
pseudoscience and superstition. 

Every time a scientific paper presents a bit of data, it's 
accompanied by an error bar - a quiet but insistent reminder that 
no knowledge is complete or perfect. It's a calibration of how 
much we trust what we think we know. If the error bars are small, 
the accuracy of our empirical knowledge is high; if the error bars 
are large, then so is the uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in 
pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is 
certainly false). 

Moreover, scientists are usually careful to characterize the 
veridical status of their attempts to understand the world - ranging 
from conjectures and hypotheses, which are highly tentative, all 
the way up to laws of Nature which are repeatedly and systemati- 
cally confirmed through many interrogations of how the world 
works. But even laws of Nature are not absolutely certain. There 
may be new circumstances never before examined - inside black 
holes, say, or within the electron, or close to the speed of light - 
where even our vaunted laws of Nature break down and, however 
valid they may be in ordinary circumstances, need correction. 

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; 


Science and Hope 

they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have 
attained it. But the history of science - by far the most successful 
claim to knowledge accessible to humans - teaches that the most 
we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, 
learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the 
Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always 
elude us. 

We will always be mired in error. The most each generation can 
hope for is to reduce the error bars a little, and to add to the body 
of data to which error bars apply. The error bar is a pervasive, 
visible self-assessment of the reliability of our knowledge. You 
often see error bars in public opinion polls ('an uncertainty of plus 
or minus three per cent', say). Imagine a society in which every 
speech in the Congressional Record, every television commercial, 
every sermon had an accompanying error bar or its equivalent. 

One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust argu- 
ments from authority'. (Scientists, being primates, and thus given 
to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this 
commandment.) Too many such arguments have proved too 
painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like 
everybody else. This independence of science, its occasional 
unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom, makes it dangerous 
to doctrines less self-critical, or with pretensions to certitude. 

Because science carries us toward an understanding of how the 
world is, rather than how we would wish it to be, its findings may 
not in all cases be immediately comprehensible or satisfying. It 
may take a little work to restructure our mindsets. Some of 
science is very simple. When it gets complicated, that's usually 
because the world is complicated - or because we're complicated. 
When we shy away from it because it seems too difficult (or 
because we've been taught so poorly), we surrender the ability to 
take charge of our future. We are disenfranchised. Our self- 
confidence erodes. 

But when we pass beyond the barrier, when the findings and 
methods of science get through to us, when we understand and put 
this knowledge to use, many feel deep satisfaction. This is true for 
everyone, but especially for children - born with a zest for 
knowledge, aware that they must live in a future moulded by 



science, but so often convinced in their adolescence that science is 
not for them. I know personally, both from having science 
explained to me and from my attempts to explain it to others, how 
gratifying it is when we get it, when obscure terms suddenly take 
on meaning, when we grasp what all the fuss is about, when deep 
wonders are revealed. 

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of 
reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of 
joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnifi- 
cence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of 
knowledge over time converts science into something only a little 
short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind. 

'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe'. What we 
breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite 
usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the 
word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter 
(including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything 
outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use 
the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a 
profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in 
an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we 
grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring 
feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely 
spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music 
or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those 
of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that 
science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a 
disservice to both. 

Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished 
beliefs. When its products are placed at the disposal of politicians 
or industrialists, it may lead to weapons of mass destruction and 
grave threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say 
about it: it delivers the goods. 

Not every branch of science can foretell the future - palaeontology 
can't - but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to 
know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try 
magicians or mystics, but you'll do much better with scientists. They 


Science and Hope 

will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and 
whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular 
eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a 
millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the 
spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin 
B„. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you 
can inoculate. If you're interested in the sex of your unborn child, 
you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; 
forward-back, a girl - or maybe it's the other way around), but 
they'll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real 
accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sono- 
grams. Try science. 

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves 
with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophe- 
cies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up 
their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic 
accuracy and reliability of science? There isn't a religion on the 
planet that doesn't long for a comparable ability - precise, and 
repeatedly demonstrated before committed sceptics - to foretell 
future events. No other human institution comes close. 

Is this worshipping at the altar of science? Is this replacing one 
faith by another, equally arbitrary? In my view, not at all. The 
directly observed success of science is the reason I advocate its 
use. If something else worked better, I would advocate the 
something else. Does science insulate itself from philosophical 
criticism? Does it define itself as having a monopoly on the 
'truth'? Think again of that eclipse a thousand years in the future. 
Compare as many doctrines as you can think of, note what 
predictions they make of the future, which ones are vague, which 
ones are precise, and which doctrines - every one of them subject 
to human fallibility - have error-correcting mechanisms built in. 
Take account of the fact that not one of them is perfect. Then 
simply pick the one that in a fair comparison works best (as 
opposed to feels) best. If different doctrines are superior in quite 
separate and independent fields, we are of course free to choose 
several - but not if they contradict one another. Far from being 
idolatry, this is the means by which we can distinguish the false 
idols from the real thing. 


Again, the reason science works so well is partly that built-in 
error-correcting machinery. There are no forbidden questions in 
science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no 
sacred truths. That openness to new ideas, combined with the 
most rigorous, sceptical scrutiny of all ideas, sifts the wheat from 
the chaff. It makes no difference how smart, august or beloved 
you are. You must prove your case in the face of determined, 
expert criticism. Diversity and debate are valued. Opinions are 
encouraged to contend - substantively and in depth. 

The process of science may sound messy and disorderly. In a 
way, it is. If you examine science in its everyday aspect, of course 
you find that scientists run the gamut of human emotion, person- 
ality and character. But there's one facet that is really striking to 
the outsider, and that is the gauntlet of criticism considered 
acceptable or even desirable. There is much warm and inspired 
encouragement of apprentice scientists by their mentors. But the 
poor graduate student at his or her PhD orai exam is subjected to 
a withering crossfire of questions from the very professors who 
have the candidate's future in their grasp. Naturally the students 
are nervous; who wouldn't be? True, they've prepared for it for 
years. But they understand that at this critical moment, they have 
to be able to answer searching questions posed by experts. So in 
preparing to defend their theses, they must practise a very useful 
habit of thought: they must anticipate questions. They have to ask: 
where in my dissertation is there a weakness that someone else 
might find? I'd better identify it before they do. 

You sit in at contentious scientific meetings. You find university 
colloquia in which the speaker has hardly gotten thirty seconds 
into the talk before there are devastating questions and comments 
from the audience. You examine the conventions in which a 
written report is submitted to a scientific journal for possible 
publication, then is conveyed by the editor to anonymous referees 
whose job it is to ask: did the author do anything stupid? Is there 
anything in here that is sufficiently interesting to be published? 
What are the deficiencies of this paper? Have the main results 
been found by anybody else? Is the argument adequate, or should 
the paper be resubmitted after the author has actually demon- 
strated what is here only speculated on? And it's anonymous: the 


Science and Hope 

author doesn't know who the critics are. This is the everyday 
expectation in the scientific community. 

Why do we put up with it? Do we like to be criticized? No, no 
scientist enjoys it. Every scientist feels a proprietary affection for 
his or her ideas and findings. Even so, you don't reply to critics, 
wait a minute; this is a really good idea; I'm very fond of it; it's 
done you no harm; please leave it alone. Instead, the hard but just 
rule is that if the ideas don't work, you must throw them away. 
Don't waste neurons on what doesn't work. Devote those neurons 
to new ideas that better explain the data. The British physicist 
Michael Faraday warned of the powerful temptation 

to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in the 
favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose 
them . . . We receive as friendly that which agrees with [us], 
we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very 
reverse is required by every dictate of common sense. 

Valid criticism does you a favour. 

Some people consider science arrogant - especially when it 
purports to contradict beliefs of long standing or when it intro- 
duces bizarre concepts that seem contradictory to common sense; 
like an earthquake that rattles our faith in the very ground we're 
standing on, challenging our accustomed beliefs, shaking the 
doctrines we have grown to rely upon, can be profoundly disturb- 
ing. Nevertheless, I maintain that science is part and parcel 
humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants 
on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take 
seriously what they find. We are aware that revered scientists have 
been wrong. We understand human imperfection. We insist on 
independent and - to the extent possible - quantitative verifica- 
tion of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, 
challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual 
errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. 
We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove 
established beliefs. 

Here's one of many examples: the laws of motion and the 
inverse square law of gravitation associated with the name of Isaac 



Newton are properly considered among the crowning achieve- 
ments of the human species. Three hundred years later we use 
Newtonian dynamics to predict those eclipses. Years after launch, 
billions of miles from Earth (with only tiny corrections from 
Einstein), the spacecraft beautifully arrives at a predetermined 
point in the orbit of the target world, just as the world comes 
ambling by. The accuracy is astonishing. Plainly, Newton knew 
what he was doing. 

But scientists have not been content to leave well enough alone. 
They have persistently sought chinks in the Newtonian armour. 
At high speeds and strong gravities, Newtonian physics breaks 
down. This is one of the great findings of Albert Einstein's Special 
and General Relativity, and is one of the reasons his memory is so 
greatly honoured. Newtonian physics is valid over a wide range of 
conditions including those of everyday life. But in certain circum- 
stances highly unusual for human beings - we are not, after all, in 
the habit of travelling near light speed - it simply doesn't give the 
right answer; it does not conform to observations of Nature. 
Special and General Relativity are indistinguishable from Newto- 
nian physics in its realm of validity, but make very different 
predictions - predictions in excellent accord with observation - in 
those other regimes (high speed, strong gravity). Newtonian 
physics turns out to be an approximation to the truth, good in 
circumstances with which we are routinely familiar, bad in others. 
It is a splendid and justly celebrated accomplishment of the 
human mind, but it has its limitations. 

However, in accord with our understanding of human fallibility, 
heeding the counsel that we may asymptotically approach the 
truth but will never fully reach it, scientists are today investigating 
regimes in which General Relativity may break down. For exam- 
ple, General Relativity predicts a startling phenomenon called 
gravitational waves. They have never been detected directly. But 
if they do not exist, there is something fundamentally wrong with 
General Relativity. Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars 
whose flicker rates can now be measured to fifteen decimal places. 
Two very dense pulsars in orbit around each other are predicted to 
radiate copious quantities of gravitational waves, which will in 
time slightly alter the orbits and rotation periods of the two stars. 

Science and Hope 

Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse of Princeton University have 
used this method to test the predictions of General Relativity in a 
wholly novel way. For all they knew, the results would be 
inconsistent with General Relativity and they would have over- 
turned one of the chief pillars of modern physics. Not only were 
they willing to challenge General Relativity, they were widely 
encouraged to do so. As it turns out, the observations of binary 
pulsars give a precise verification of the predictions of General 
Relativity, and for this Taylor and Hulse were co-recipients of the 
1993 Nobel Prize in Physics. In diverse ways, many other physi- 
cists are testing General Relativity, for example by attempting 
directly to detect the elusive gravitational waves. They hope to 
strain the theory to the breaking point and discover whether a 
regime of Nature exists in which Einstein's great advance in 
understanding in turn begins to fray. 

These efforts will continue as long as there are scientists. 
General Relativity is certainly an inadequate description of 
Nature at the quantum level, but even if that were not the case, 
even if General Relativity were everywhere and forever valid, 
what better way of convincing ourselves of its validity than a 
concerted effort to discover its failings and limitations? 

This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not 
inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths 
acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous 
and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies? 
Beyond the test of everyday living, who is systematically testing 
the circumstances in which traditional religious teachings may no 
longer apply? (It is certainly conceivable that doctrines and ethics 
that may have worked fairly well in patriarchal or patristic or 
medieval times might be thoroughly invalid in the very different 
world we inhabit today.) What sermons even-handedly examine 
the God hypothesis? What rewards are religious sceptics given by 
the established religions - or, for that matter, social and economic 
sceptics by the society in which they swim? 

Science, Ann Druyan notes, is forever whispering in our ears, 
'Remember, you're very new at this. You might be mistaken. 
You've been wrong before.' Despite all the talk of humility, show 
me something comparable in religion. Scripture is said to be 



divinely inspired - a phrase with many meanings. But what if it's 
simply made up by fallible humans? Miracles are attested, but 
what if they're instead some mix of charlatanry, unfamiliar states 
of consciousness, misapprehensions of natural phenomena and 
mental illness? No contemporary religion and no New Age belief 
seems to me to take sufficient account of the grandeur, magnifi- 
cence, subtlety and intricacy of the Universe revealed by science. 
The fact that so little of the findings of modern science is 
prefigured in Scripture to my mind casts further doubt on its 
divine inspiration. 

But of course I might be wrong. 

Read the following two paragraphs - not to understand the 
science described, but to get a feeling for the author's style of 
thinking. He is facing anomalies, apparent paradoxes in physics; 
'asymmetries' he calls them. What can we learn from them? 

It is known that Maxwell's electrodynamics - as usually 
understood at the present time - when applied to moving 
bodies, leads to asymmetries which do not appear to be 
inherent in the phenomena. Take, for example, the recipro- 
cal electrodynamic action of a magnet and a conductor. The 
observable phenomenon here depends only on the relative 
motion of the conductor and the magnet, whereas the cus- 
tomary view draws a sharp distinction between the two cases 
in which either the one or the other of these bodies is in 
motion. For if the magnet is in motion and the conductor at 
rest, there arises in the neighbourhood of the magnet an 
electric field with a certain definite energy, producing a 
current at the places where parts of the conductor are 
situated. But if the magnet is stationary and the conductor in 
motion, no electric field arises in the neighbourhood of the 
magnet. In the conductor, however, we find an electromotive 
force, to which in itself there is no corresponding energy, but 
which gives rise - assuming equality of relative motion in the 
two cases discussed - to electric currents of the same path and 
intensity as those produced by the electric forces in the 
former case. 


Science and Hope 

Examples of this sort, together with the unsuccessful 
attempts to discover any motion of the earth relative to the 
'ether', suggest that the phenomena of electrodynamics as 
well as of mechanics possess no properties corresponding to 
the idea of absolute rest. They suggest rather that, as has 
already been shown to the first order of small quantities, the 
same laws of electrodynamics and optics will be valid for all 
frames of reference for which the equations of mechanics 
hold good. 

What is the author trying to tell us here? I'll try to explain the 
background later in this book. For now, we can perhaps recognize 
that the language is spare, technical, cautious, clear, and not a jot 
more complicated than it need be. You would not offhand guess 
from how it's phrased (or from its unostentatious title, 'On the 
Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies') that this article represents 
the crucial arrival of the theory of Special Relativity into the 
world, the gateway to the triumphant announcement of the 
equivalence of mass and energy, the deflation of the conceit that 
our small world occupies some 'privileged reference frame' in the 
Universe, and in several different ways an epochal event in human 
history. The opening words of Albert Einstein's 1905 paper are 
characteristic of the scientific report. It is refreshingly unselfserv- 
ing, circumspect, understated. Contrast its restrained tone with, 
say, the products of modern advertising, political speeches, 
authoritative theological pronouncements - or for that matter the 
blurb on the cover of this book. 

Notice how Einstein's paper begins by trying to make sense of 
experimental results. Wherever possible, scientists experiment. 
Which experiments suggest themselves often depends on which 
theories currently prevail. Scientists are intent on testing those 
theories to the breaking point. They do not trust what is intuitively 
obvious. That the Earth is flat was once obvious. That heavy 
bodies fall faster than light ones was once obvious. That blood- 
sucking leeches cure most diseases was once obvious. That some 
people are naturally and by divine decree slaves was once obvious. 
That there is such a place as the centre of the Universe, and that 
the Earth sits in that exalted spot was once obvious. That there is 



an absolute standard of rest was once obvious. The truth may be 
puzzling or counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held beliefs. 
Experiment is how we get a handle on it. 

At a dinner many decades ago, the physicist Robert W. 
Wood was asked to respond to the toast, 'To physics and 
metaphysics'. By 'metaphysics', people then meant something 
like philosophy, or truths you could recognize just by thinking 
about them. They could also have included pseudoscience. 
Wood answered along these lines: the physicist has an idea. The 
more he thinks it through, the more sense it seems to make. He 
consults the scientific literature. The more he reads, the more 
promising the idea becomes. Thus prepared, he goes to the 
laboratory and devises an experiment to test it. The experiment 
is painstaking. Many possibilities are checked. The accuracy of 
measurement is refined, the error bars reduced. He lets the 
chips fall where they may. He is devoted only to what the 
experiment teaches. At the end of all this work, through careful 
experimentation, the idea is found to be worthless. So the 
physicist discards it, frees his mind from the clutter of error, 
and moves on to something else.* 

The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood con- 
cluded as he raised his glass high, is not that the practitioners of 
one are smarter than the practitioners of the other. The difference 
is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory. 

For me, there are four main reasons for a concerted effort to 
convey science - on radio and TV, in movies, newspapers, books, 
computer programs, theme parks and classrooms - to every 
citizen. In all uses of science, it is insufficient - indeed it is 
dangerous - to produce only a small, highly competent, well- 
rewarded priesthood of professionals. Instead, some fundamental 
understanding of the findings and methods of science must be 
available on the broadest scale. 

* As the pioneering physicist Benjamin Franklin put it, 'In going on with these 
experiments, how many pretty systems do we build, which we soon find 
ourselves obliged to destroy?' At the very least, he thought, the experience 
sufficed to 'help to make a vain Man humble'. 


Science and Hope 

• Despite plentiful opportunities for misuse, science can be the 
golden road out of poverty and backwardness for emerging 
nations. It makes national economies and the global civilization 
run. Many nations understand this. It is why so many graduate 
students in science and engineering at American graduate 
schools - still the best in the world - are from other countries. 
The corollary, one that the United States sometimes fails to 
grasp, is that abandoning science is the road back into poverty 
and backwardness. 

• Science alerts us to the perils introduced by our world-altering 
technologies, especially to the global environment on which our 
lives depend. Science provides an essential early warning 

• Science teaches us about the deepest issues of origins, natures 
and fates-of our species, of life, of our planet, of the Universe. 
For the first time in human history we are able to secure a real 
understanding of some of these matters. Every culture on Earth 
has addressed such issues and valued their importance. All of 
us feel goosebumps when we approach these grand questions. 
In the long run, the greatest gift of science may be in teaching 
us, in ways no other human endeavour has been able, some- 
thing about our cosmic context, about where, when and who we 

• The values of science and the values of democracy are concord- 
ant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy 
began - in their civilized incarnations - in the same time and 
place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. Science 
confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it 
(although too many have been systematically prevented from 
doing so). Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free 
exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science 
holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both 
science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and 
vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent 
argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science 
is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to 
knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against supersti- 
tion, against religion misapplied to where it has no business 



being. If we're true to its values, it can tell us when we're being 
lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. 
The more widespread its language, rules and methods, the 
better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson 
and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be 
subverted more thoroughly through the products of science 
than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed. 

Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of 
confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication and cour- 
age. But if we don't practise these tough habits of thought, we 
cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us and 
we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for 
grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along. 

An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on earth - scrutinizing 
what we mainly present to our children on television and radio 
and in movies, newspapers, magazines, comics and many books- 
might easily conclude that we are intent on teaching them murder, 
rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity and consumerism. We keep 
at it, and through constant repetition many of them finally get it. 
What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed into 
them science and a sense of hope? 



The Man in the Moon 
and the Face on Mars 

The moon leaps 

In the Great River's current . . . 

Floating on the wind, 

What do I resemble? 

Du Fu, 'Travelling at Night' 
(China, Tang Dynasty, 765) 

Each field of science has its own complement of pseudo- 
science. Geophysicists have flat Earths, hollow Earths, 
Earths with wildly bobbing axes to contend with, rapidly rising 
and sinking continents, plus earthquake prophets. Botanists 
have plants whose passionate emotional lives can be monitored 
with lie detectors, anthropologists have surviving ape-men, 
zoologists have extant dinosaurs, and evolutionary biologists 
have Biblical literalists snapping at their flanks. Archaeologists 
have ancient astronauts, forged runes and spurious statuary. 
Physicists have perpetual motion machines, an army of amateur 
relativity disprovers, and perhaps cold fusion. Chemists still 
have alchemy. Psychologists have much of psychoanalysis and 
almost all of parapsychology. Economists have long-range 
economic forecasting. Meteorologists, so far, have long-range 
weather forecasting, as in the sunspot-oriented Farmer's Alma- 
nac (although long-term climate forecasting is another matter). 
Astronomy has, as its most prominent pseudoscience, astrology 



- the discipline out of which it emerged. The pseudosciences 
sometimes intersect, compounding the confusion - as in telepathic 
searches for buried treasures from Atlantis, or astrological economic 

But because I work mainly with planets, and because I've been 
interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the pseudo- 
sciences that most often park themselves on my doorstep involve 
other worlds and what we have come so easily in our time to call 
'aliens'. In the chapters immediately following, I want to lay out 
two recent, somewhat related pseudoscientific doctrines. They 
share the possibility that human perceptual and cognitive imper- 
fections play a role in deceiving us on matters of great import. The 
first contends that a giant stone face from ages past is staring 
expressionlessly up at the sky from the sands of Mars. The second 
maintains that alien beings from distant worlds visit the Earth with 
casual impunity. 

Even when summarized so baldly, isn't there a kind of thrill in 
contemplating these claims? What if such hoary science fiction 
ideas - resonant surely with deep human fears and longings - 
actually were coming to pass? Whose interest can fail to be 
aroused? Immersed in such material, even the crassest cynic is 
stirred. Are we absolutely sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, 
that we can dismiss these claims? And if hardened debunkers can 
sense the appeal, what must those untutored in scientific scepti- 
cism, like Mr 'Buckley', feel? 

For most of history - before spacecraft, before telescopes, when 
we were still largely immersed in magical thinking - the Moon was 
an enigma. Almost no one thought of it as a world. 

What do we actually see when we look up at the Moon with the 
naked eye? We make out a configuration of irregular bright and 
dark markings - not a close representation of any familiar object. 
But, almost irresistibly, our eyes connect the markings, emphasiz- 
ing some, ignoring others. We seek a pattern and we find one. In 
world myth and folklore, many images are seen: a woman 
weaving, stands of laurel trees, an elephant jumping off a cliff, a 
girl with a basket on her back, a rabbit, the lunar intestines spilled 
out on its surface after evisceration by an irritable flightless bird, a 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

woman pounding tapa cloth, a four-eyed jaguar. People of one 
culture have trouble understanding how such bizarre things could 
be seen by the people of another. 

The most common image is the Man in the Moon. Of course, it 
doesn't really look like a man. Its features are lopsided, warped, 
drooping. There's a beefsteak or something over the left eye. And 
what expression does that mouth convey? An 'O' of surprise? A 
hint of sadness, even lamentation? Doleful recognition of the 
travails of life on Earth? Certainly the face is too round. The ears 
are missing. I guess he's bald on top. Nevertheless, every time I 
look at it, I see a human face. 

World folklore depicts the Moon as something prosaic. In the 
pre-Apollo generation, children were told that the Moon was 
made of green (that is, smelly) cheese, and for some reason this 
was thought not marvellous but hilarious. In children's books and 
editorial cartoons, the Man in the Moon is often drawn simply as a 
face set in a circle, not too different from the bland 'happy face' of 
a pair of dots and an upturned arc. Benignly, he looks down on 
the nocturnal frolics of animals and children, of the knife and the 

Consider again the two categories of terrain we recognize when 
we examine the Moon with the naked eye: the brighter forehead, 
cheeks and chin, and the darker eyes and mouth. Through a 
telescope, the bright features are revealed to be ancient cratered 
highlands, dating back, we now know (from the radioactive dating 
of samples returned by the Apollo astronauts), to almost 4.5 
billion years ago. The dark features are somewhat younger flows 
of basaltic lava called maria (singular, mare - both from the Latin 
word for ocean, although the Moon, we now know, is dry as a 
bone). The maria welled up in the first few hundred million years 
of lunar history, partly induced by the high-speed impact of 
enormous asteroids and comets. The right eye is Mare Imbrium, 
the beefsteak drooping over the left eye is the combination of 
Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquilitatis (where Apollo 11 
landed), and the off-centre open mouth is Mare Humorum. (No 
craters can be made out by ordinary, unaided human vision.) 

The Man in the Moon is in fact a record of ancient catastrophes, 
most of which took place before humans, before mammals, before 



vertebrates, before multicelled organisms, and probably even 
before life arose on Earth. It is a characteristic conceit of our 
species to put a human face on random cosmic violence. 

Humans, like other primates, are a gregarious lot. We enjoy one 
another's company. We're mammals and parental care of the young 
is essential for the continuance of the hereditary lines. The parent 
smiles at the child, the child smiles back, and a bond is forged or 
strengthened. As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and 
we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants 
who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back 
less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents and less likely 
to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a 
human face and to respond with a goony grin. 

As an inadvertent side effect, the pattern-recognition machin- 
ery in our brains is so efficient in extracting a face from a clutter of 
other detail that we sometimes see faces where there are none. 
We assemble disconnected patches of light and dark and uncon- 
sciously try to see a face. The Man in the Moon is one result. 
Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup describes another. There 
are many other examples. 

Sometimes it's a geological formation, such as the Old Man of 
the Mountain at Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. We recognize 
that, rather than some supernatural agency or an otherwise 
undiscovered ancient civilization in New Hampshire, this is the 
product of erosion and collapse of a rock face. Anyway, it doesn't 
look much like a face anymore. There's the Devil's Head in North 
Carolina, the Sphinx Rock in Wast Water, Cumbria, England, the 
Old Woman in France, the Vartan Rock in Armenia. Sometimes 
it's a reclining woman, as Mt Ixtaccihuatl in Mexico. Sometimes 
it's other body parts, as the Grand Tetons in Wyoming - 
approached from the West, a pair of mountain peaks named by 
French explorers. (Actually there are three.) Sometimes it's 
changing patterns in the clouds. In late medieval and renaissance 
Spain, visions of the Virgin Mary were 'confirmed' by people 
seeing saints in cloud forms. (While sailing out of Suva, Fiji, I 
once saw the head of a truly terrifying monster, jaws agape, set in 
a brooding storm cloud.) 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

Occasionally, a vegetable or a pattern of wood grain or the hide 
of a cow resembles a human face. There was a celebrated eggplant 
that closely resembled Richard M. Nixon. What shall we deduce 
from this fact? Divine or extraterrestrial intervention? Republican 
meddling in eggplant genetics? No. We recognize that there are 
large numbers of eggplants in the world and that, given enough of 
them, sooner or later we'll come upon one that looks like a human 
face, even a very particular human face. 

When the face is of a religious personage - as, for example, a 
tortilla purported to exhibit the face of Jesus - believers tend 
quickly to deduce the hand of God. In an age more sceptical than 
most, they crave reassurance. Still, it seems unlikely that a miracle 
is being worked on so evanescent a medium. Considering how 
many tortillas have been pounded out since the beginning of the 
world, it would be surprising if a few didn't have at least vaguely 
familiar features.* 

Magical properties have been ascribed to ginseng and man- 
drake roots, in part because of vague resemblances to the 
human form. Some chestnut shoots show smiling faces. Some 
corals look like hands. The ear fungus (also unpleasantly called 
'Jew's ear') indeed looks like an ear, and something rather like 
enormous eyes can be seen on the wings of certain moths. Some 
of this may not be mere coincidence; plants and animals that 
suggest a face may be less likely to be gobbled up by creatures 
with faces - or creatures who are afraid of predators with faces. 
A 'walking stick' is an insect spectacularly well disguised as a 
twig. Naturally, it tends to live on and around trees. Its mimicry 
of the plant world saves it from birds and other predators, and 
is almost certainly the reason that its extraordinary form was 
slowly moulded by Darwinian natural selection. Such crossings 
of the boundaries between kingdoms of life are unnerving. A 

* These cases are very different from that of the so-called Shroud of Turin, which 
shows something too close to a human form to be a misapprehended natural 
pattern and which is now suggested by carbon-14 dating to be not the death 
shroud of Jesus, but a pious hoax from the fourteenth century - a time when 
the manufacture of fraudulent religious relics was a thriving and profitable 
home handicraft industry. 



young child viewing a walking stick can easily imagine an army 
of sticks, branches and trees marching for some ominous planty 

Many instances of this sort are described and illustrated in a 
1979 book called Natural Likeness by John Michell, a British 
enthusiast of the occult. He takes seriously the claims of 
Richard Shaver, who - as described below - played a role in the 
origin of the UFO excitement in America. Shaver cut open 
rocks on his Wisconsin farm and discovered, written in a 
pictographic language that only he could see, much less under- 
stand, a comprehensive history of the world. Michell also 
accepts at face value the claims of the dramatist and surrealist 
theoretician Antonin Artaud, who, in part under the influence 
of peyote, saw in the patterns on the outsides of rocks erotic 
images, a man being tortured, ferocious animals and the like. 
'The whole landscape revealed itself,' Michell says, 'as the 
creation of a single thought.' But a key question: was that 
thought inside or outside Artaud's head? Artaud concluded, 
and Michell agrees, that the patterns so apparent in the rocks 
were manufactured by an ancient civilization, rather than by 
Artaud's partly hallucinogen-induced altered state of con- 
sciousness. When Artaud returned from Mexico to Europe, he 
was diagnosed as mad. Michell decries the 'materialist outlook' 
that greeted Artaud's patterns sceptically. 

Michell shows us a photograph of the Sun taken in X-ray light 
which looks vaguely like a face and informs us that 'followers of 
Gurdjieff see the face of their Master' in the solar corona. 
Innumerable faces in trees, mountains and boulders all over the 
world are inferred to be the product of ancient wisdom. 
Perhaps some are: it's a good practical joke, as well as a 
tempting religious symbol, to pile stones so from afar they look 
like a giant face. 

The view that most of these forms are patterns natural to 
rock-forming processes and the bilateral symmetry of plants and 
animals, plus a little natural selection - all processed through the 
human-biased filter of our perception - Michell describes as 
'materialism' and a 'nineteenth-century delusion'. 'Conditioned 
by rationalist beliefs, our view of the world is duller and more 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

confined than nature intended.' By what process he has plumbed 
the intentions of Nature is not revealed. 

Of the images he presents, Michell concludes that 

their mystery remains essentially untouched, a constant 
source of wonder, delight and speculation. All we know for 
sure is that nature created them and at the same time gave us 
the apparatus to perceive them and minds to appreciate their 
endless fascination. For the greatest profit and enjoyment 
they should be viewed as nature intended, with the eye of 
innocence, unclouded by theories and preconceptions, with 
the manifold vision, innate in all of us, that enriches and 
dignifies human life, rather than with the cultivated single 
vision of the dull and opinionated. 

Perhaps the most famous spurious claim of a portentous pattern 
involves the canals of Mars. First observed in 1877, they were 
seemingly confirmed by a succession of dedicated professional 
astronomers peering through large telescopes all over the 
world. A network of single and double straight lines was 
reported, crisscrossing the Martian surface and with such 
uncanny geometrical regularity that they could only be of 
intelligent origin. Evocative conclusions were drawn about a 
parched and dying planet populated by an older and wiser 
technical civilization dedicated to conservation of water 
resources. Hundreds of canals were mapped and named. But, 
oddly, they avoided showing up on photographs. The human 
eye, it was suggested, could remember the brief instants of 
perfect atmospheric transparency, while the undiscriminating 
photographic plate averaged the few clear with the many blurry 
moments. Some astronomers saw the canals. Many did not. 
Perhaps certain observers were more skilled at seeing canals. Or 
perhaps the whole business was some kind of perceptual delusion. 

Much of the idea of Mars as an abode of life, as well as the 
prevalence of 'Martians' in popular fiction, derives from the 
canals. I myself grew up steeped in this literature, and when I 
found myself an experimenter on the Mariner 9 mission to Mars - 
the first spacecraft to orbit the red planet - naturally I was 



interested to see what the real circumstances were. With Mariner 
9 and with Viking, we were able to map the planet pole-to-pole, 
detecting features hundreds of times smaller than the best that 
could be seen from Earth. I found, not altogether to my surprise, 
not a trace of canals. There were a few more or less linear features 
that had been made out through the telescope - for example, a 
5,000-kilometre-long rift valley that would have been hard to 
miss. But the hundreds of 'classical' canals carrying water from the 
polar caps through the arid deserts to the parched equatorial cities 
simply did not exist. They were an illusion, some malfunction of 
the human hand-eye-brain combination at the limit of resolution 
when we peer through an unsteady and turbulent atmosphere. 

Even a succession of professional scientists - including famous 
astronomers who had made other discoveries that are confirmed 
and now justly celebrated - can make serious, even profound 
errors in pattern recognition. Especially where the implications of 
what we think we are seeing seem to be profound, we may not 
exercise adequate self-discipline and self-criticism. The Martian 
canal myth constitutes an important cautionary tale. 

For the canals, spacecraft missions provided the means of 
correcting our misapprehensions. But it is also true that some of 
the most haunting claims of unexpected patterns emerge from 
spacecraft exploration. In the early 1960s, I urged that we be 
attentive to the possibility of finding the artefacts of ancient 
civilizations, either those indigenous to a given world, or those 
constructed by visitors from elsewhere. I didn't imagine that this 
would be easy or probable, and I certainly did not suggest that, on 
so important a matter, anything short of iron-clad evidence would 
be worth considering. 

Beginning with John Glenn's evocative report of 'fireflies' sur- 
rounding his space capsule, every time an astronaut reported seeing 
something not immediately understood, there were those who 
deduced 'aliens'. Prosaic explanations - specks of paint flecking off 
the ship in the space environment, say - were dismissed with 
contempt. The lure of the marvellous blunts our critical faculties. (As 
if a man become a moon is not marvel enough.) 

Around the time of the Apollo lunar landings, many non- 
experts - owners of small telescopes, flying saucer zealots, writers 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

for aerospace magazines - pored over the returned photographs 
seeking anomalies that NASA scientists and astronauts had 
overlooked. Soon there were reports of gigantic Latin letters and 
Arabic numerals inscribed on the lunar surface, pyramids, high- 
ways, crosses, glowing UFOs. Bridges were reported on the 
Moon, radio antennas, the tracks of enormous crawling vehicles, 
and the devastation left by machines able to slice craters in two. 
Every one of these claims, though, turns out to be a natural lunar 
geological formation misjudged by amateur analysts, internal 
reflections in the optics of the astronauts' Hasselblad cameras, 
and the like. Some enthusiasts discerned the long shadows of 
ballistic missiles - Soviet missiles, it was ominously confided, 
aimed at America. The rockets, also described as 'spires', turn out 
to be low hills casting long shadows when the Sun is near the lunar 
horizon. A little trigonometry dispels the mirage. 

These experiences also provide fair warning: for a complex 
terrain sculpted by unfamiliar processes, amateurs (and some- 
times even professionals) examining photographs, especially near 
the limit of resolution, may get into trouble. Their hopes and 
fears, the excitement of possible discoveries of great import, may 
overwhelm the usual sceptical and cautious approach of science. 

If we examine available surface images of Venus, occasionally a 
peculiar landform swims into view - as, for example, a rough 
portrait of Joseph Stalin discovered by American geologists 
analysing Soviet orbital radar imagery. No one maintains, I 
gather, that unreconstructed Stalinists had doctored the magnetic 
tapes, or that the former Soviets were engaged in engineering 
activities of unprecedented and hitherto unrevealed scale on the 
surface of Venus - where every spacecraft to land has been fried in 
an hour or two. The odds are overwhelming that this feature, 
whatever it is, is due to geology. The same is true of what seems to 
be a portrait of the cartoon character Bugs Bunny on the Uranian 
moon Ariel. A Hubble space telescope image of Titan in the 
near-infrared shows clouds roughly configured to make a world- 
sized smiling face. Every planetary scientist has a favourite 

The astronomy of the Milky Way also is replete with imagined 
likenesses - for example, the Horsehead, Eskimo, Owl, 



Homunculus, Tarantula and North American Nebulae, all irregu- 
lar clouds of gas and dust, illuminated by bright stars and each on 
a scale that dwarfs our solar system. When astronomers mapped 
the distribution of galaxies out to a few hundred million light 
years, they found themselves outlining a crude human form which 
has been called 'the Stickman'. The configuration is understood as 
something like enormous adjacent soap bubbles, the galaxies 
formed on the surface of adjacent bubbles and almost no galaxies 
in the interiors. This makes it quite likely that they will mark out a 
pattern with bilateral symmetry something like the Stickman. 

Mars is much more clement than Venus, although the Viking 
landers provided no compelling evidence for life. Its terrain is 
extremely heterogeneous and diverse. With 100,000 or so close-up 
photographs available, it is not surprising that claims have been 
made over the years about something unusual on Mars. There is, for 
example, a cheerful 'happy face' sitting inside a Martian impact 
crater 8 kilometres (5 miles) across, with a set of radial splash marks 
outside, making it look like the conventional representation of a 
smiling Sun. But no one claims that this has been engineered by an 
advanced (and excessively genial) Martian civilization, perhaps to 
attract our attention. We recognize that, with objects of all sizes 
falling out of the sky, with the surface rebounding, slumping and 
reconfiguring itself after each impact, and with ancient water and 
mudflows and modern windborne sand sculpting the surface, a wide 
variety of landforms must be generated. If we scrutinize 100,000 
pictures, it's not surprising that occasionally we'll come upon some- 
thing like a face. With our brains programmed for this from infancy, 
it would be amazing if we couldn't find one here and there. 

A few small mountains on Mars resemble pyramids. In the 
Elysium high plateau, there is a cluster of them - the biggest a few 
kilometres across at the base - all oriented in the same direction. 
There is something a little eerie about these pyramids in the 
desert, so reminiscent of the Gizeh plateau in Egypt, and I would 
love to examine them more closely. Is it reasonable, though, to 
deduce Martian pharaohs? 

Similar features are also known on Earth in miniature, espe- 
cially in Antarctica. Some of them would come up to your knees. 
If we knew nothing else about them, would it be fair to conclude 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

that they've been manufactured by scale-model Egyptians living in 
the Antarctic wasteland? (The hypothesis loosely fits the observa- 
tions, but much else we know about the polar environment and the 
physiology of humans speaks against it.) They are, in fact, generated 
by wind erosion - the splatter of fine particles picked up by strong 
winds blowing mainly in the same direction and, over the years, 
sculpting what once were irregular hummocks into nicely symmetri- 
cal pyramids. They're called dreikanters, from a German word 
meaning three sides. This is order generated out of chaos by natural 
processes - something we see over and over again throughout the 
Universe (in rotating spiral galaxies, for instance). Each time it 
happens we're tempted to infer the direct intervention of a Maker. 

On Mars, there is evidence of winds much fiercer than any ever 
experienced on Earth, ranging up to half the speed of sound. 
Planet-wide duststorms are common, carrying fine grains of sand. 
A steady pitter-patter of particles moving much faster than in the 
fiercest gales of Earth should, over ages of geological time, work 
profound changes in rock faces and landforms. It would not be too 
surprising if a few features - even very large ones - were sculpted 
by aeolian processes into the pyramidal forms we see. 

There is a place on Mars called Cydonia, where a great stone face a 
kilometre across stares unblinkingly up at the sky. It is an unfriendly 
face, but one that seems recognizably human. In some representa- 
tions, it could have been sculpted by Praxiteles. It lies in a landscape 
where many low hills have been moulded into odd forms, perhaps by 
some mixture of ancient mudflows and subsequent wind erosion. 
From the number of impact craters, the surrounding terrain looks to 
be at least hundreds of millions of years old. 

Intermittently, 'The Face' has attracted attention, both in the 
United States and in the former Soviet Union. The headline in the 
20 November 1984 Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid 
not celebrated for its integrity, read: 




The revelations are attributed to an anonymous Soviet source and 
breathlessly describe discoveries made by a nonexistent Soviet 
space vehicle. 

But the story of 'The Face' is almost entirely an American one. 
It was found by one of the Viking orbiters in 1976. There was an 
unfortunate dismissal of the feature by a project official as a trick 
of light and shadow, which prompted a later accusation that 
NASA was covering up the discovery of the millennium. A few 
engineers, computer specialists and others - some of them con- 
tract employees of NASA - worked on their own time digitally to 
enhance the image. Perhaps they hoped for stunning revelations. 
That's permissible in science, even encouraged - as long as your 
standards of evidence are high. Some of them were fairly cautious 
and deserve to be commended for advancing the subject. Others 
were less restrained, deducing not only that the Face was a 
genuine, monumental sculpture of a human being, but claiming to 
find a city nearby with temples and fortifications.* From spurious 
arguments, one writer announced that the monuments had a 
particular astronomical orientation - not now, though, but half a 
million years ago - from which it followed that the Cydonian 
wonders were erected in that remote epoch. But then how could 
the builders have been human? Half a million years ago, our 
ancestors were busy mastering stone tools and fire. They did not 
have spaceships. 

The Martian Face is compared to 'similar faces . . . constructed 
in civilizations on Earth. The faces are looking up at the sky 
because they're looking up to God.' Or the Face was constructed 
by the survivors of an interplanetary war that left the surface of 
Mars (and the Moon) pockmarked and ravaged. What causes all 
those craters anyway? Is the Face a remnant of a long-extinct 
human civilization? Were the builders originally from Earth or 
Mars? Could the Face have been sculpted by interstellar visitors 

* The general idea is quite old, going back at least a century to the Martian canal 
myth of Percival Lowell. As one of many examples, P.E. Cleator, in his 1936 
book Rockets Through Space: The Dawn of Interplanetary Travel, speculated: 
'On Mars, the crumbling remains of ancient civilizations may be found, mutely 
testifying to the one-time glory of a dying world.' 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

stopping briefly on Mars? Was it left for us to discover? Might 
they also have come to Earth and initiated life here? Or at least 
human life? Were they, whoever they were, gods? Much fervent 
speculation is evoked. 

More recently, claims have been made for a connection between 
'monuments' on Mars and 'crop circles' on Earth; of inexhaustible 
supplies of energy waiting to be extracted from ancient Martian 
machines; and of a massive NASA cover-up to hide the truth from 
the American public. Such pronouncements go far beyond more 
incautious speculation about enigmatic landforms. 

When, in August 1993, the Mars Observer spacecraft failed 
within hailing distance of Mars, there were those who accused 
NASA of faking the mishap so it could study the Face in detail 
without having to release the images to the public. (If so, the 
charade is quite elaborate: all the experts on Martian geomorphol- 
ogy know nothing about it, and some of us have been working 
hard to design new missions to Mars less vulnerable to the 
malfunction that destroyed Mars Observer.) There was even a 
handful of pickets outside the gates of the Jet Propulsion Labora- 
tory, worked up over this supposed abuse of power. 

The tabloid Weekly World News for 14 September 1993 devoted 
its front page to the headline 'New NASA Photo Proves Humans 
Lived on Mars!' A fake face, allegedly taken by Mars Observer in 
orbit about Mars (in fact, the spacecraft seems to have failed 
before achieving orbit), is said by a non-existent 'leading space 
scientist' to prove that Martians colonized Earth 200,000 years 
ago. The information is being suppressed, he is made to say, to 
prevent 'world panic'. 

Put aside the improbability that such a revelation would actually 
lead to 'world panic'. For anyone who has witnessed a portentous 
scientific finding in the making - the July 1994 impact of Comet 
Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter comes to mind - it will be clear 
that scientists tend to be effervescent and uncontainable. They 
have an indomitable compulsion to share new data. Only through 
prior agreement, not ex post facto, do scientists abide military 
secrecy. I reject the notion that science is by its nature secretive. 
Its culture and ethos are, and for very good reason, collective, 
collaborative and communicative. 



If we restrict ourselves to what is actually known, and ignore the 
tabloid industry that manufactures epochal discoveries out of thin 
air, where are we? When we know only a little about the Face, it 
raises goosebumps. When we know a little more, the mystery 
quickly shallows. 

Mars has a surface area of almost 150 million square kilometres. 
Is it so astonishing that one (comparatively) postage-stamp-sized 
patch in 150 million should look artificial - especially given our 
penchant, since infancy, for finding faces? When we examine the 
neighbouring jumble of hillocks, mesas and other complex surface 
forms, we recognize that the feature is akin to many that do not at 
all resemble a human face. Why this resemblance? Would the 
ancient Martian engineers rework only this mesa (well, maybe a 
few others) and leave all others unimproved by monumental 
sculpture? Or shall we conclude that other blocky mesas are also 
sculpted into the form of faces, but weirder faces, unfamiliar to us 
on Earth? 

If we study the original image more carefully, we find that a 
strategically placed 'nostril' - one that adds much to the impres- 
sion of a face - is in fact a black dot corresponding to lost data in 
the radio transmission from Mars to Earth. The best picture of the 
Face shows one side lit by the Sun, the other in deep shadow. 
Using the original digital data, we can severely enhance the 
contrast in the shadows. When we do, we find something rather 
unfacelike there. The Face is at best half a face. Despite our 
shortness of breath and the beating of our hearts, the Martian 
sphinx looks natural - not artificial, not a dead ringer for a human 
face. It was probably sculpted by slow geological process over 
millions of years. 

But I might be wrong. It's hard to be sure about a world we've 
seen so little of in extreme close-up. These features merit closer 
attention with higher resolution. Much more detailed photos of 
the Face would surely settle issues of symmetry and help resolve 
the debate between geology and monumental sculpture. Small 
impact craters found on or near the Face can settle the question of 
its age. In the case (most unlikely in my view) that the nearby 
structures were really once a city, that fact should also be obvious 
on closer examination. Are there broken streets? Crenellations in 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

the 'fort'? Ziggurats, towers, columned temples, monumental 
statuary, immense frescoes? Or just rocks? 

Even if these claims are extremely improbable - as I think they 
are - they are worth examining. Unlike the UFO phenomenon, 
we have here the opportunity for a definitive experiment. This 
kind of hypothesis is falsifiable, a property that brings it well into 
the scientific arena. I hope that forthcoming American and 
Russian missions to Mars, especially orbiters with high-resolution 
television cameras, will make a special effort - among hundreds of 
other scientific questions - to look much more closely at the 
pyramids and what some people call the Face and the city. 

Even if it becomes plain to everyone that these Martian features 
are geological and not artificial, monumental faces in space (and 
allied wonders) will not, I fear, go away. Already there are 
supermarket tabloids reporting nearly identical faces seen from 
Venus to Neptune (floating in the clouds?). The 'findings' are 
typically attributed to fictitious Russian spacecraft and imaginary 
space scientists, which of course makes it marginally harder for a 
sceptic to check the story out. 

One of the Mars face enthusiasts now announces: 

Breakthru News of the Century 
Censored by NASA 
for fear of Religious upheavals and breakdowns. 
The Discovery of ancient 

A 'giant city, size of Los Angeles basin, covered by immense glass 
dome, abandoned millions of years ago, and shattered by meteors 
with gigantic tower 5 miles tall, with giant one mile square cube on 
top' is breathlessly 'CONFIRMED' on the well-studied Moon. 
The evidence? Photos taken by NASA robotic and Apollo mis- 
sions whose significance was suppressed by the government and 
overlooked by all those lunar scientists in many countries who 
don't work for the 'government'. 

The 18 August 1992 issue of Weekly World News reports the 
discovery by 'a secret NASA satellite' of 'thousands maybe even 



millions of voices' emanating from the black hole at the centre of 
the galaxy M51, all singing ' "Glory, glory, glory to the Lord on 
high" over and over again'. In English. There is even a tabloid 
report, fully although murkily illustrated, of a space probe that 
photographed God, or at least his eyes and the bridge of his nose, 
up there in the Orion Nebula. 

The 20 July 1993 WWN sports a banner headline, 'Clinton 
Meets with JFK!' along with a faked photo of a plausibly aged, 
slumped-over John Kennedy, having secretly survived the assassi- 
nation attempt, in a wheelchair at Camp David. Many pages 
inside the tabloid, we are informed about another item of possible 
interest. In 'Doomsday Asteroids', an alleged top-secret docu- 
ment quotes alleged 'top' scientists about an alleged asteroid 
('M-167') that will allegedly hit the Earth on 11 November 1993 
and 'could mean the end of life on Earth'. President Clinton is 
described as being kept 'constantly informed of the asteroid's 
position and speed'. Perhaps it was one of the items he discussed 
in his meeting with President Kennedy. Somehow, the fact that 
the Earth escaped this catastrophe did not merit even a retrospec- 
tive paragraph after 11 November 1993 uneventfully passed. At 
least the headline writer's judgement not to burden the front page 
with the news of the end of the world was vindicated. 

Some see this as just a kind of fun. However, we live in a time 
when a real long-term statistical threat of an impact of an asteroid 
with the Earth has been identified. (This real science is of course 
the inspiration, if that's the word, of the WWN story.) Govern- 
ment agencies are studying what to do about it. Stories like this 
suffuse the subject with apocalyptic exaggeration and whimsy, 
make it difficult for the public to distinguish real perils from 
tabloid fiction, and conceivably can impede our ability to take 
precautionary steps to mitigate the danger. 

The tabloids are often sued - sometimes by actors and actresses 
who stoutly deny they have performed loathsome acts - and large 
sums of money occasionally change hands. The tabloids must 
consider such suits as just one of the costs of doing a very 
profitable business. In their defence they often say that they are at 
the mercy of their writers and have no institutional responsibility 
to check out the truth of what they publish. Sal Ivone, the 


The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

managing editor of Weekly World News, discussing the stories he 
publishes, says 'For all I know, they could be the product of active 
imaginations. But because we're a tabloid, we don't have to 
question ourselves out of a story.' Scepticism doesn't sell news- 
papers. Writers who have defected from the tabloids describe 
'creative' sessions in which writers and editors dream up stories 
and headlines out of whole cloth, the more outrageous the better. 

Out of their immense readership, are there not many who take 
the stories at face value, who believe the tabloids 'couldn't' print it 
if it wasn't so? Some readers I talk to insist they read them only for 
entertainment, just as they watch 'wrestling' on television, that 
they're not in the least taken in, that the tabloids are understood 
by publisher and reader alike to be whimsies that explore the 
absurd. They merely exist outside any universe burdened by rules 
of evidence. But my mail suggests that large numbers of Ameri- 
cans take the tabloids very seriously indeed. 

In the 1990s the tabloid universe is expanding, voraciously 
gobbling up other media. Newspapers, magazines or television 
programmes that labour under prissy restraints imposed by what is 
actually known are outsold by media outlets with less scrupulous 
standards. We can see this in the new generation of acknowledged 
tabloid television, and increasingly in what passes for news and 
information programmes. 

Such reports persist and proliferate because they sell. And they 
sell, I think, because there are so many of us who want so badly to 
be jolted out of our humdrum lives, to rekindle that sense of 
wonder we remember from childhood, and also, for a few of the 
stories, to be able, really and truly, to believe in Someone older, 
smarter and wiser who is looking out for us. Faith is clearly not 
enough for many people. They crave hard evidence, scientific 
proof. They long for the scientific seal of approval, but are 
unwilling to put up with the rigorous standards of evidence that 
impart credibility to that seal. What a relief it would be: doubt 
reliably abolished! Then, the irksome burden of looking after 
ourselves would be lifted. We're worried - and for good reason - 
about what it means for the human future if we have only 
ourselves to rely upon. 

These are the modern miracles, shamelessly vouched for by 



those who make them up from scratch, bypassing any formal 
sceptical scrutiny, and available at low cost in every supermarket, 
grocery store and convenience outlet in the land. One of the 
pretences of the tabloids is to make science, the very instrument of 
our disbelief, confirm our ancient faiths and effect a convergence 
of pseudoscience and pseudoreligion. 

By and large, scientists' minds are open when exploring new 
worlds. If we knew beforehand what we'd find, it would be 
unnecessary to go. In future missions to Mars or to the other 
fascinating worlds in our neck of the cosmic woods, surprises - 
even some of mythic proportions - are possible, maybe even 
likely. But we humans have a talent for deceiving ourselves. 
Scepticism must be a component of the explorer's toolkit, or we 
will lose our way. There are wonders enough out there without 
our inventing any. 




'Truly, that which makes me believe there is no inhabitant 
on this sphere, is that it seems to me that no sensible being 
would be willing to live here.' 

'Well, then!' said Micromegas, 'perhaps the beings that 
inhabit it do not possess good sense.' 

One alien to another, 
on approaching the Earth, 
in Voltaire's Micromegas: 
A Philosophical History (1752) 

It's still dark out. You're lying in bed, fully awake. You discover 
you're utterly paralysed. You sense someone in the room. You 
try to cry out. You cannot. Several small grey beings, less than 
four feet tall, are standing at the foot of the bed. Their heads are 
pear-shaped, bald, and large for their bodies. Their eyes are 
enormous, their faces expressionless and identical. They wear 
tunics and boots. You hope this is only a dream. But as nearly as 
you can tell it's really happening. They lift you up and, eerily, they 
and you slip through the wall of your bedroom. You float out into 
the air. You rise high toward a metallic saucer-shaped spacecraft. 
Once inside, you are escorted into a medical examining room. A 
larger but similar being, evidently some kind of physician, takes 
over. What follows is even more terrifying. 

Your body is probed with instruments and machines, especially 



your sexual parts. If you're a man, they may take sperm 
samples; if you're a woman, they may remove ova or foetuses, 
or implant semen. They may force you to have sex. Afterwards 
you may be ushered into a different room where hybrid babies 
or foetuses, partly human and partly like these creatures, stare 
back at you. You may be given an admonition about human 
misbehaviour, especially in despoiling the environment or in 
allowing the AIDS pandemic; tableaux of future devastation 
are offered. Finally, these cheerless grey emissaries escort you 
out of the spacecraft and ooze you back through the walls into 
your bed. By the time you're able to move and talk . . . they're 

You may not remember the incident right away. Instead you 
might simply find some period of time unaccountably missing, and 
puzzle over it. Because all this seems so weird, you're a little 
concerned about your sanity. Naturally you're reluctant to talk 
about it. At the same time the experience is so disturbing that it's 
hard to keep it bottled up. It all pours out when you hear of 
similar accounts, or when you're under hypnosis with a sympa- 
thetic therapist, or even when you see a picture of an 'alien' in one 
of the many popular magazines, books, and TV 'specials' on 
UFOs. Some people say they can recall such experiences from 
early childhood. Their own children, they think, are now being 
abducted by aliens. It runs in families. It's a eugenics programme, 
they say, to improve the human breeding stock. Maybe aliens 
have always done this. Maybe, some say, that's where humans 
came from in the first place. 

As revealed by repeated polls over the years, most Americans 
believe that we're being visited by extraterrestrial beings in UFOs. 
In a 1992 Roper opinion poll of nearly 6,000 American adults - 
especially commissioned by those who accept the alien abduction 
story at face value - 18 per cent reported sometimes waking up 
paralysed, aware of one or more strange beings in the room. 
About 13 per cent reported odd episodes of missing time, and 10 
per cent claimed to have flown through the air without mechanical 
assistance. From nothing more than these results, the poll's 
sponsors conclude that two per cent of all Americans have been 
abducted, many repeatedly, by beings from other worlds. The 



question of whether respondents had been abducted by aliens was 
never actually put to them. 

If we believed the conclusion drawn by those who bankrolled 
and interpreted the results of this poll, and if aliens are not partial 
to Americans, then the number for the whole planet would be 
more than a hundred million people. This means an abduction 
every few seconds over the past few decades. It's surprising more 
of the neighbours haven't noticed. 

What's going on here? When you talk with self-described 
abductees, most seem very sincere, although caught in the grip of 
powerful emotions. Some psychiatrists who've examined them say 
they find no more evidence of psychopathology in them than in 
the rest of us. Why should anyone claim to have been abducted by 
alien creatures if it never happened? Could all these people be 
mistaken, or lying, or hallucinating the same (or a similar) story? 
Or is it arrogant and contemptuous even to question the good 
sense of so many? 

On the other hand, could there really be a massive alien 
invasion; repugnant medical procedures performed on millions of 
innocent men, women and children; humans apparently used as 
breeding stock over many decades - and all this not generally 
known and dealt with by responsible media, physicians, scientists 
and the governments sworn to protect the lives and well-being of 
their citizens? Or, as many have suggested, is there a massive 
government conspiracy to keep the citizens from the truth? 

Why should beings so advanced in physics and engineering - 
crossing vast interstellar distances, walking like ghosts through 
walls - be so backward when it comes to biology? Why, if the 
aliens are trying to do their business in secret, wouldn't they 
perfectly expunge all memories of the abductions? Too hard for 
them to do? Why are the examining instruments macroscopic and 
so reminiscent of what can be found at the neighbourhood medical 
clinic? Why go to all the trouble of repeated sexual encounters 
between aliens and humans? Why not steal a few egg and sperm 
cells, read the full genetic code, and then manufacture as many 
copies as you like with whatever genetic variations happen to suit 
your fancy? Even we humans, who as yet cannot quickly cross 
interstellar space or slither through walls, are able to clone cells. 



How could humans be the result of an alien breeding programme 
if we share 99.6 per cent of our active genes with the chimpan- 
zees? We're more closely related to chimps than rats are to mice. 
The preoccupation with reproduction in these accounts raises a 
warning flag, especially considering the uneasy balance between 
sexual impulse and societal repression that has always character- 
ized the human condition, and the fact that we live in a time 
fraught with numerous ghastly accounts, both true and false, of 
childhood sexual abuse. 

Contrary to many media reports,* the Roper pollsters and 
those who wrote the 'official' report never asked whether their 
subjects had been abducted by aliens. They deduced it: those 
who've ever awakened with strange presences around them, 
who've ever unaccountably seemed to fly through the air, and 
so on, have therefore been abducted. The pollsters didn't even 
check to see if sensing presences, flying etc. were part of the 
same or separate incidents. Their conclusion - that millions of 
Americans have been so abducted - is spurious, based on 
careless experimental design. 

Still, at least hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, claiming 
they have been abducted, have sought out sympathetic therapists 
or joined abductee support groups. Others may have similar 
complaints but, fearing ridicule or the stigma of mental illness, 
have refrained from speaking up or getting help. 

Some abductees are also said to be reluctant to talk for fear of 
hostility and rejection by hardline sceptics (although many will- 
ingly appear on radio and TV talk shows). Their diffidence 
supposedly extends even to audiences that already believe in alien 
abductions. But maybe there's another reason: might the subjects 
themselves be unsure - at least at first, at least before many 
retellings of their story - whether it was an external event they are 
remembering or a state of mind? 

'One unerring mark of the love of truth,' wrote John Locke in 

* For example, the 4 September 1994 Publisher's Weekly: 'According to a Gallup 
[sic] poll, more than three million Americans believe they have been abducted 
by aliens.' 



1690, 'is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance 
than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.' On the matter of 
UFOs, how strong are the proofs? 

The phrase 'flying saucer' was coined when I was entering high 
school. The newspapers were full of stories about ships from 
beyond in the skies of Earth. It seemed pretty believable to me. 
There were lots of other stars, at least some of which probably had 
planetary systems like ours. Many stars were as old or older than 
the Sun, so there was plenty of time for intelligent life to evolve. 
Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had just flown a two-stage 
rocket high above the Earth. Clearly we were on our way to the 
Moon and the planets. Why shouldn't other, older, wiser beings 
be able to travel from their star to ours? Why not? 

This was only a few years after the bombing of Hiroshima and 
Nagasaki. Maybe the UFO occupants were worried about us, and 
sought to help us. Or maybe they wanted to make sure that we 
and our nuclear weapons didn't come and bother them. Many 
people seemed to see flying saucers - sober pillars of the commu- 
nity, police officers, commercial airplane pilots, military person- 
nel. And apart from some harumphs and giggles, I couldn't find 
any counterarguments. How could all these eyewitnesses be 
mistaken? What's more, the saucers had been picked up on radar, 
and pictures had been taken of them. You could see the photos in 
newspapers and glossy magazines. There were even reports about 
crashed flying saucers and little alien bodies with perfect teeth 
stiffly languishing in Air Force freezers in the southwest. 

The prevailing climate was summarized in Life magazine a few 
years later, in these words: 'These objects cannot be explained by 
present science as natural phenomena - but solely as artificial 
devices, created and operated by a high intelligence.' Nothing 
'known or projected on Earth could account for the performance 
of these devices.' 

And yet not a single adult I knew was preoccupied with UFOs. I 
couldn't figure out why not. Instead they were worried about 
Communist China, nuclear weapons, McCarthyism and the rent. I 
wondered if they had their priorities straight. 

In college, in the early 1950s, I began to learn a little about how 
science works, the secrets of its great success, how rigorous the 



standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something 
is true, how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human 
thinking, how our biases can colour our interpretation of the 
evidence, and how often belief systems widely held and supported 
by the political, religious and academic hierarchies turn out to be 
not just slightly in error, but grotesquely wrong. 

I came upon a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions 
and the Madness of Crowds written by Charles Mackay in 1841 
and still in print. In it could be found the histories of boom-and- 
bust economic crazes, including the Mississippi and South Sea 
'Bubbles' and the extravagant run on Dutch tulips, scams that 
bamboozled the wealthy and titled of many nations; a legion of 
alchemists, including the poignant tale of Mr Kelly and Dr Dee 
(and Dee's 8-year-old son Arthur, impressed by his desperate 
father into communicating with the spirit world by peering into a 
crystal); dolorous accounts of unfulfilled prophecy, divination and 
fortune-telling; the persecution of witches; haunted houses; 
'popular admiration of great thieves'; and much else. Entertain- 
ingly portrayed was the Count of St Germain, who dined out on 
the cheerful pretension that he was centuries old if not actually 
immortal. (When, at dinner, incredulity was expressed at his 
recounting of his conversations with Richard the Lion-Heart, he 
turned to his man-servant for confirmation. 'You forget, sir,' was 
the reply, 'I have been only five hundred years in your service.' 
'Ah, true,' said St Germain, 'it was a little before your time.') 

A riveting chapter on the Crusades began 

Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or 
phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love 
of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of 
imitation. Failing in these, it has some madness, to which it is 
goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined. 

The edition I first read was adorned by a quote from the financier 
and adviser of Presidents, Bernard M. Baruch, attesting that 
reading Mackay had saved him millions. 

There had been a long history of spurious claims that magnet- 
ism could cure disease. Paracelsus, for example, used a magnet to 



suck diseases out of the human body and dispose of them into the 
Earth. But the key figure was Franz Mesmer. I had vaguely 
understood the word 'mesmerize' to mean something like hypno- 
tize. But my first real knowledge of Mesmer came from Mackay. 
The Viennese physician had thought that the positions of the 
planets influenced human health, and was caught up in the 
wonders of electricity and magnetism. He catered to the declining 
French nobility on the eve of the Revolution. They crowded into a 
darkened room. Dressed in a gold-flowered silk robe and waving 
an ivory wand, Mesmer seated his marks around a vat of dilute 
sulphuric acid. The Magnetizer and his young male assistants 
peered deeply into the eyes of their patients, and rubbed their 
bodies. They grasped iron bars protruding into the solution or 
held each other's hands. In contagious frenzy, aristocrats - 
especially young women - were cured left and right. 

Mesmer became a sensation. He called it 'animal magnetism'. 
For the more conventional medical practitioner, though, this was 
bad for business, so French physicians pressured King Louis XVI 
to crack down. Mesmer, they said, was a menace to public health. 
A commission was appointed by the French Academy of Sciences 
that included the pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and the 
American diplomat and expert on electricity, Benjamin Franklin. 
They performed the obvious control experiment: when the mag- 
netizing effects were performed without the patient's knowledge, 
no cures were effected. The cures, if any, the commission 
concluded, were all in the mind of the beholder. Mesmer and his 
followers were undeterred. One of them later urged the following 
attitude of mind for best results: 

Forget for a while all of your knowledge of physics . . . 
Remove from your mind all objections that may occur . . . 
Never reason for six weeks ... Be very credulous; be very 
persevering; reject all past experience, and do not listen to 

Oh, yes, a final piece of advice: 'Never magnetize before inquisi- 
tive persons.' 

Another eye-opener was Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in 


the Name of Science. Here was Wilhelm Reich uncovering the key 
to the structure of galaxies in the energy of the human orgasm; 
Andrew Crosse creating microscopic insects electrically from 
salts; Hans Horbiger under Nazi aegis announcing that the Milky 
Way was made not of stars, but of snowballs; Charles Piazzi 
Smyth discovering in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of 
Gizeh a world chronology from the Creation to the Second 
Coming; L. Ron Hubbard writing a manuscript able to drive its 
readers insane (was it ever proofed? I wondered); the Bridey 
Murphy case, which led millions into concluding that at last there 
was serious evidence of reincarnation; Joseph Rhine's 'demon- 
strations' of ESP; appendicitis cured by cold water enemas, 
bacterial diseases by brass cylinders, and gonorrhoea by green 
light - and amid all these accounts of self-deception and charla- 
tanry, to my surprise a chapter on UFOs. 

Of course, merely by writing books cataloguing spurious 
beliefs, Mackay and Gardner came across, at least a little, as 
grumpy and superior. Was there nothing they accepted? Still, it 
was stunning how many passionately argued and defended claims 
to knowledge had amounted to nothing. It slowly dawned on me 
that, human fallibility being what it is, there might be other 
explanations for flying saucers. 

I had been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life 
from childhood, from long before I ever heard of flying saucers. 
I've remained fascinated long after my early enthusiasm for UFOs 
waned - as I understood more about that remorseless taskmaster 
called the scientific method: everything hinges on the matter of 
evidence. On so important a question, the evidence must be 
airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have 
to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. 
People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or 
attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what 
they're seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren't 

Essentially all the UFO cases were anecdotes, something 
asserted. UFOs were described variously as rapidly moving or 
hovering; disc-shaped, cigar-shaped, or ball-shaped; moving 
silently or noisily; with a fiery exhaust, or with no exhaust at all; 



accompanied by flashing lights, or uniformly glowing with a 
silvery cast, or self-luminous. The diversity of the observations 
hinted that they had no common origin, and that the use of such 
terms as UFOs or 'flying saucers' served only to confuse the issue 
by grouping generically a set of unrelated phenomena. 

There was something odd about the very invention of the 
phrase 'flying saucer'. As I write this chapter, I have before me a 
transcript of a 7 April 1950 interview between Edward R. 
Murrow, the celebrated CBS newsman, and Kenneth Arnold, a 
civilian pilot who saw something peculiar near Mount Rainier in 
the state of Washington on 24 June 1947 and who in a way coined 
the phrase. Arnold claims that the newspapers 

did not quote me properly . . . When I told the press they 
misquoted me, and in the excitement of it all, one newspaper 
and another one got it so ensnarled up that nobody knew just 
exactly what they were talking about . . . These objects more 
or less fluttered like they were, oh, I'd say, boats on very 
rough water . . . And when I described how they flew, I said 
that they flew like they take a saucer and throw it across the 
water. Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted 
that, too. They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I 
said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion. 

Arnold thought he saw a train of nine objects, one of which 
produced a 'terrific blue flash'. He concluded they were a new 
kind of winged aircraft. Murrow summed up: 'That was an 
historic misquote. While Mr Arnold's original explanation has 
been forgotten, the term "flying saucer" has become a house- 
hold word.' Kenneth Arnold's flying saucers looked and 
behaved quite differently from what in only a few years would 
be rigidly particularized in the public understanding of the 
term: something like a very large and highly manoeuverable 

Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they 
saw were natural, if unfamiliar, phenomena. Some UFO sightings 
turned out to be unconventional aircraft, conventional aircraft 
with unusual lighting patterns, high-altitude balloons, luminescent 



insects, planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions, opti- 
cal mirages and looming, lenticular clouds, ball lightning, sun- 
dogs, meteors including green fireballs, and satellites, nosecones, 
and rocket boosters spectacularly re-entering the atmosphere.* 
Just conceivably, a few might be small comets dissipating in the 
upper air. At least some radar reports were due to 'anomalous 
propagation' - radio waves travelling curved paths due to atmos- 
pheric temperature inversions. Traditionally, they were also 
called radar 'angels' - something that seems to be there but isn't. 
You could have simultaneous visual and radar sightings without 
there being any 'there' there. 

When we notice something strange in the sky, some of us 
become excitable and uncritical, bad witnesses. There was the 
suspicion that the field attracted rogues and charlatans. Many 
UFO photos turned out to be fakes - small models hanging by thin 
threads, often photographed in a double exposure. A UFO seen 
by thousands of people at a football game turned out to be a 
college fraternity prank - a piece of cardboard, some candles and 
a thin plastic bag that dry cleaning comes in, all cobbled together 
to make a rudimentary hot air balloon. 

The original crashed saucer account (with the little alien men 
and their perfect teeth) turned out to be a straight hoax. Frank 
Scully, columnist for Variety, passed on a story told by an oilman 
friend; it played a central dramatic role in Scully's best-selling 
1950 book, Behind the Flying Saucers. Sixteen dead aliens from 
Venus, each three feet high, had been found in one of three 
crashed saucers. Booklets with alien pictograms had been recov- 
ered. The military was covering up. The implications were pro- 

The hoaxers were Silas Newton, who said he used radio waves 
to prospect for gold and oil, and a mysterious 'Dr Gee' who 
turned out to be a Mr GeBauer. Newton produced a gear from the 
UFO machinery and flashed close-up saucer photos. But he did 
not allow close inspection. When a prepared sceptic, through 

* There are so many artificial satellites up there that they're always making 
garish displays somewhere in the world. Two or three decay every day in the 
Earth's atmosphere, the flaming debris often visible to the naked eye. 



sleight of hand, switched gears and sent the alien artefact away for 
analysis, it turned out to be made of kitchen-pot aluminium. 

The crashed saucer scam was a small interlude in a quarter- 
century of frauds by Newton and GeBauer, chiefly selling worth- 
less oil leases and prospecting machines. In 1952 they were 
arrested by the FBI, and the following year found guilty of 
conducting a confidence game. Their exploits, chronicled by the 
historian Curtis Peebles, ought to have made UFO enthusiasts 
cautious forever about crashed saucer stories from the American 
Southwest around 1950. No such luck. 

On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial 
satellite, was launched. Of 1,178 recorded UFO sightings in 
America that year, 701 or 60 per cent - rather than the 25 per cent 
you'd expect - occurred between October and December. The 
clear implication is that Sputnik and its attendant publicity some- 
how generated UFO reports. Perhaps people were looking at the 
night sky more and saw more natural phenomena they didn't 
understand. Or could it be they looked up more and saw more of 
the alien spacecraft that are there all the time? 

The idea of flying saucers had dubious antecedents, tracing 
back to a conscious hoax entitled / Remember Lemurial, 
written by Richard Shaver, and published in the March 1945 
number of the pulp fiction periodical Amazing Stories. It was 
exactly the sort of stuff I devoured as a child. Lost continents 
were settled by space aliens 150,000 years ago, I was informed, 
leading to the creation of a race of demonic underground beings 
responsible for human tribulations and the existence of evil. 
The editor of the magazine, Ray Palmer - who was, like the 
subterranean beings he warned about, roughly four feet high - 
promoted the notion, well before Arnold's sighting, that the 
Earth is being visited by disc-shaped alien spacecraft and that 
the government is covering up its knowledge and complicity. 
Merely from the newsstand covers of such magazines, millions 
of Americans were exposed to the idea of flying saucers well 
before the term was coined. 

All in all, the alleged evidence seemed thin, most often 
devolving into gullibility, hoax, hallucination, misunderstanding 
of the natural world, hopes and fears disguised as evidence, and a 



craving for attention, fame and fortune. Too bad, I remember 

Since then, I've been lucky enough to be involved in sending 
spacecraft to other planets to look for life, and in listening for 
possible radio signals from alien civilizations, if any, on planets 
of distant stars. We've had a few tantalizing moments. But if 
the suspected signal isn't available for every grumpy sceptic to 
pick over, we cannot call it evidence of extraterrestrial life - no 
matter how appealing we find the notion. We'll just have to 
wait until, if such a time ever comes, better data are available. 
We've not yet found compelling evidence for life beyond the 
Earth. We're only at the very beginning of the search, though. 
New and better information might emerge, for all we know, 

I don't think anyone could be more interested than I am in 
whether we're being visited. It would save me so much time and 
effort to be able to study extraterrestrial life directly and nearby, 
rather than at best indirectly and at great distance. Even if the 
aliens are short, dour and sexually obsessed - if they're here, I 
want to know about them. 

How modest our expectations are about 'aliens', and how shoddy 
the standards of evidence that many of us are willing to accept, 
can be found in the saga of the crop circles. Originating in Britain 
and spreading throughout the world was something surpassing 

Farmers or passers-by would discover circles (and, in later 
years, much more complex pictograms) impressed upon fields of 
wheat, oats, barley, and rapeseed. Beginning with simple circles 
in the middle 1970s, the phenomenon progressed year by year, 
until by the late 1980s and early 1990s the countryside, especially 
in southern England, was graced by immense geometrical figures, 
some the size of football fields, imprinted on cereal grain before 
the harvest - circles tangent to circles, or connected by axes, 
parallel lines drooping off, 'insectoids'. Some of the patterns 
showed a central circle surrounded by four symmetrically placed 
smaller circles - clearly, it was concluded, caused by a flying 
saucer and its four landing pods. 



A hoax? Impossible, almost everyone said. There were hun- 
dreds of cases. It was done sometimes in only an hour or two in 
the dead of night, and on such a large scale. No footprints of 
pranksters leading towards or away from the pictograms could be 
found. And besides, what possible motive could there be for a 

Many less conventional conjectures were offered. People with 
some scientific training examined sites, spun arguments, instituted 
whole journals devoted to the subject. Were the figures caused by 
strange whirlwinds called 'columnar vortices', or even stranger 
ones called 'ring vortices'? What about ball lightning? Japanese 
investigators tried to simulate, in the laboratory and on a small 
scale, the plasma physics they thought was working its way on 
far-off Wiltshire. 

But especially as the crop figures became more complex, 
meteorological or electrical explanations became more strained. 
Plainly it was due to UFOs, the aliens communicating to us in a 
geometrical language. Or perhaps it was the devil, or the long- 
suffering Earth complaining about the depredations visited upon 
it by the hand of Man. New Age tourists came in droves. All-night 
vigils were undertaken by enthusiasts equipped with audio record- 
ers and infrared vision scopes. Print and electronic media from all 
over the world tracked the intrepid cerealogists. Best-selling 
books on extraterrestrial crop distorters were purchased by a 
breathless and admiring public. True, no saucer was actually seen 
settling down on the wheat, no geometrical figure was filmed in 
the course of being generated. But dowsers authenticated their 
alien origin, and channellers made contact with the entities 
responsible. 'Orgone energy' was detected within the circles. 

Questions were asked in Parliament. The royal family called in 
for special consultation Lord Solly Zuckerman, former principal 
scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Ghosts were said to 
be involved; also, the Knights Templar of Malta and other secret 
societies. Satanists were implicated. The Defence Ministry was 
covering the matter up. A few inept and inelegant circles were 
judged attempts by the military to throw the public off the track. 
The tabloid press had a field day. The Daily Mirror hired a farmer 
and his son to make five circles in hope of tempting a rival tabloid. 



the Daily Express, into reporting the story. The Express was, in 
this case at least, not taken in. 

'Cerealogical' organizations grew and splintered. Competing 
groups sent each other intimidating doggerel. Accusations were 
made of incompetence or worse. The number of crop 'circles' rose 
into the thousands. The phenomenon spread to the United States, 
Canada, Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands. The picto- 
grams - especially the more complex of them - began to be quoted 
increasingly in arguments for alien visitation. Strained connec- 
tions were drawn to the 'Face' on Mars. One scientist of my 
acquaintance wrote to me that extremely sophisticated mathemat- 
ics was hidden in these figures; they could only be the result of a 
superior intelligence. In fact, one matter on which almost all of 
the contending cerealogists agreed is that the later crop figures 
were much too complex and elegant to be due to mere human 
intervention, much less to some ragged and irresponsible hoaxers. 
Extraterrestrial intelligence was apparent at a glance . . . 

In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two blokes from 
Southampton, announced they had been making crop figures for 
fifteen years. They dreamed it up over stout one evening in their 
regular pub, The Percy Hobbes. They had been amused by UFO 
reports and thought it might be fun to spoof the UFO gullibles. At 
first they flattened the wheat with the heavy steel bar that Bower 
used as a security device on the back door of his picture framing 
shop. Later on they used planks and ropes. Their first efforts took 
only a few minutes. But, being inveterate pranksters as well as 
serious artists, the challenge began to grow on them. Gradually, 
they designed and executed more and more demanding figures. 

At first no one seemed to notice. There were no media reports. 
Their artforms were neglected by the tribe of UFOlogists. They 
were on the verge of abandoning crop circles to move on to some 
other, more emotionally rewarding hoax. 

Suddenly crop circles caught on. UFOlogists fell for it hook, 
line and sinker. Bower and Chorley were delighted - especially 
when scientists and others began to announce their considered 
judgement that no merely human intelligence could be responsi- 

Carefully they planned each nocturnal excursion, sometimes 



following meticulous diagrams they had prepared in watercolours. 
They closely tracked their interpreters. When a local meteorolo- 
gist deduced a kind of whirlwind because all of the crops were 
deflected downward in a clockwise circle, they confounded him by 
making a new figure with an exterior ring flattened counterclock- 

Soon other crop figures appeared in southern England and 
elsewhere. Copycat hoaxsters had appeared. Bower and Chorley 
carved out a responsive message in wheat: 'WEARENO- 
TALONE'. Even this some took to be a genuine extraterrestrial 
message (although it would have been better had it read 
'YOUARENOTALONE'). Doug and Dave began signing their 
artworks with two Ds; even this was attributed to a mysterious 
alien purpose. Bower's nocturnal disappearances aroused the 
suspicions of his wife Ilene. Only with great difficulty - Ilene 
accompanying Dave and Doug one night, and then joining the 
credulous in admiring their handiwork next day - was she 
convinced that his absences were, in this sense, innocent. 

Eventually Bower and Chorley tired of the increasingly elabo- 
rate prank. While in excellent physical condition, they were both 
in their sixties now and a little old for nocturnal commando 
operations in the fields of unknown and often unsympathetic 
farmers. They may have been annoyed at the fame and fortune 
accrued by those who merely photographed their art and 
announced aliens to be the artists. And they became worried that 
if they delayed much longer, no statement of theirs would be 

So they confessed. They demonstrated to reporters how they 
made even the most elaborate insectoid patterns. You might think 
that never again would it be argued that a sustained hoax over 
many years is impossible, and never again would we hear that no 
one could possibly be motivated to deceive the gullible into 
thinking that aliens exist. But the media paid brief attention. 
Cerealogists urged them to go easy; after all, they were depriving 
many of the pleasure of imagining wondrous happenings. 

Since then, other crop circle hoaxers have kept at it, but mostly 
in a more desultory and less inspired manner. As always, the 
confession of the hoax is greatly overshadowed by the sustained 



initial excitement. Many have heard of the pictograms in cereal 
grains and their alleged UFO connection, but draw a blank when 
the names of Bower and Chorley or the very idea that the whole 
business may be a hoax are raised. An informative expose by the 
journalist Jim Schnabel (Round in Circles, 1994), from which 
much of my account is taken, is in print. Schnabel joined the 
cerealogists early and in the end made a few successful pictograms 
himself. (He prefers a garden roller to a wooden plank, and found 
that simply stomping grain with one's feet does an acceptable 
job.) But Schnabel's work, which one reviewer called 'the funniest 
book I've read in ages', had only modest success. Demons sell; 
hoaxers are boring and in bad taste. 

The tenets of scepticism do not require an advanced degree to 
master, as most successful used car buyers demonstrate. The 
whole idea of a democratic application of scepticism is that 
everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and con- 
structively evaluate claims to knowledge. All science asks is to 
employ the same levels of scepticism we use in buying a used car 
or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their television 

But the tools of scepticism are generally unavailable to the 
citizens of our society. They're hardly ever mentioned in the 
schools, even in the presentation of science, its most ardent 
practitioner, although scepticism repeatedly sprouts spontane- 
ously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, 
economics, advertising and religions (New Age and Old) are 
awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who 
wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a sceptic might 
suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism. 



Spoofing and Secrecy 

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his 
self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the 
marvellous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, 
require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the 
contravention of probability by the thing testified. 

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) 

When the mother of celebrity abductee Travis Walton was 
informed that a UFO had zapped her son with a bolt of 
lightning and then carried him off into space, she replied incuri- 
ously, 'Well, that's the way these things happen.' Is it? 

To agree that UFOs are in our skies is not committing to very 
much: 'UFO' is an abbreviation for 'Unidentified Flying Object'. 
It is a more inclusive term than 'flying saucer'. That there are 
things seen which the ordinary observer, or even an occasional 
expert, does not understand is inevitable. But why, if we see 
something we don't recognize, should we conclude it's a ship from 
the stars? A wide variety of more prosaic possibilities present 

After misapprehended natural events and hoaxes and psycho- 
logical aberrations are removed from the data set, is there any 
residue of very credible but extremely bizarre cases, especially 
ones supported by physical evidence? Is there a 'signal' hiding in 
all that noise? In my view, no signal has been detected. There are 



reliably reported cases that are unexotic, and exotic cases that are 
unreliable. There are no cases - despite well over a million UFO 
reports since 1947 - in which something so strange that it could 
only be an extraterrestrial spacecraft is reported so reliably that 
misapprehension, hoax or hallucination can be reliably excluded. 
There's still a part of me that says, 'Too bad.' 

We're regularly bombarded with extravagant UFO claims 
vended in bite-sized packages, but only rarely do we get to hear 
about their comeuppance. This isn't hard to understand: which 
sells more newspapers and books, which garners higher ratings, 
which is more fun to believe, which is more resonant with the 
torments of our time - real crashed alien ships, or experienced con 
men preying on the gullible; extraterrestrials of immense powers 
toying with the human species, or such claims deriving from 
human weakness and imperfection? 

Over the years I've continued to spend time on the UFO 
problem. I receive many letters about it, frequently with detailed 
first-hand accounts. Sometimes momentous revelations are prom- 
ised if only I will call the letter writer. After I give lectures - on 
almost any subject - I often am asked, 'Do you believe in UFOs?' 
I'm always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion 
that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence. I'm almost never 
asked, 'How good is the evidence that UFOs are alien space- 

I've found that the going-in attitude of many people is highly 
predetermined. Some are convinced that eyewitness testimony is 
reliable, that people do not make things up, that hallucinations or 
hoaxes on such a scale are impossible, and that there must be a 
long-standing, high-level government conspiracy to keep the truth 
from the rest of us. Gullibility about UFOs thrives on widespread 
mistrust of government, arising naturally enough from all those 
circumstances where, in the tension between public well-being 
and 'national security', the government lies. As government 
deceit and conspiracies of silence have been exposed on so many 
other matters, it's hard to argue that a cover-up on this odd 
subject is impossible, that the government would never hide 
important information from its citizens. A common explanation 
on why there would be a cover-up is to prevent worldwide panic or 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

erosion of confidence in the government. 

I was a member of the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board 
committee that investigated the Air Force's UFO study - called 
'Project Bluebook', but earlier and revealingly called 'Project 
Grudge'. We found the on-going effort to be lackadaisical and 
dismissive. In the middle 1960s, 'Project Bluebook' was headquar- 
tered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where 'Foreign 
Technical Intelligence' (chiefly, understanding what new weapons 
the Soviets had) was also based. They had state-of-the-art technol- 
ogy in file retrieval. You asked about a given UFO incident and, 
somewhat like sweaters and suits at the dry cleaner's today, reams 
of files made their way past you, until the engine stopped when 
the file you wanted arrived before you. 

But what was in those files wasn't worth much. For example, 
senior citizens reported lights hovering over their small New 
Hampshire town for more than an hour, and the case is explained 
as a wing of strategic bombers from a nearby Air Force base on a 
training exercise. Could the bombers take an hour to pass over the 
town? No. Did the bombers fly over at the time the UFOs were 
reported? No. Can you explain to us, Colonel, how strategic 
bombers can be described as 'hovering'? No. The slipshod Blue- 
book investigations played little scientific role, but they did serve 
the important bureaucratic purpose of convincing much of the 
public that the Air Force was on the job; and that maybe there 
was nothing to UFO reports. 

Of course, this doesn't preclude the possibility that another, 
more serious, more scientific study of UFOs was going on 
somewhere else, headed, say, by a brigadier general rather than a 
lieutenant colonel. I think something like this is even likely, not 
because I believe we're being visited by aliens, but because hiding 
in the UFO phenomena must be data once considered of signifi- 
cant military interest. Certainly if UFOs are as reported - very 
fast, very manoeuvrable craft - there is a military duty to find out 
how they work. If UFOs were built by the Soviet Union it was the 
Air Force's responsibility to protect us. Considering the remark- 
able performance characteristics reported, the strategic implica- 
tions of Soviet UFOs flagrantly overflying American military and 
nuclear facilities were worrisome. If on the other hand the UFOs 



were built by extraterrestrials, we might copy the technology (if 
we could get our hands on just one saucer) and secure a huge 
advantage in the Cold War. And even if the military believed that 
UFOs were manufactured neither by Soviets nor by extraterres- 
trials, there was a good reason to follow the reports closely. 

In the 1950s balloons were being extensively used by the Air 
Force - not just as weather measurement platforms, as promi- 
nently advertised, and radar reflectors, as acknowledged, but 
also, secretly, as robotic espionage craft, with high-resolution 
cameras and signal intelligence devices. While the balloons them- 
selves were not very secret, the reconnaissance packages they 
carried were. High-altitude balloons can seem saucer-shaped 
when seen from the ground. If you misestimate how far away they 
are, you can easily imagine them going absurdly fast. Occasion- 
ally, propelled by a gust of wind, they make abrupt changes in 
direction, uncharacteristic of aircraft and in seeming defiance of 
the conservation of momentum - if you don't realize they're 
hollow and weigh almost nothing. 

The most famous of these military balloon systems, widely 
tested over the United States in the early 1950s, was called 
'Skyhook'. Other balloon systems and projects were designated 
'Mogul', 'Moby Dick', 'Grandson' and 'Genetrix'. Urner Lidell, 
who had some responsibility for these missions at the Naval 
Research Laboratory, and who was later a NASA official, once 
told me he thought all UFO reports were due to military balloons. 
While 'all' is going too far, their role has, I think, been insuffi- 
ciently appreciated. So far as I know there has never been a 
systematic and intentional control experiment, in which high- 
altitude balloons were secretly released and tracked, and UFO 
reports from visual and radar observers noted. 

In 1956, overflights of the Soviet Union by US reconnaissance 
balloons began. At their peak there were dozens of balloon 
launches a day. Balloon overflights were then replaced by high- 
altitude aircraft, such as the U-2, which in turn were largely 
replaced by reconnaissance satellites. Many UFOs dating from 
this period were clearly scientific balloons, as are some since. 
High-altitude balloons are still being launched, including plat- 
forms carrying cosmic ray sensors, optical and infrared telescopes, 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

radio receivers probing the cosmic background radiation, and 
other instruments above most of the Earth's atmosphere. 

A great to-do has been made of one or more alleged crashed 
flying saucers near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Some initial 
reports and newspaper photographs of the incident are entirely 
consistent with the idea that the debris was a crashed high-altitude 
balloon. But other residents of the region - especially decades 
later - remember more exotic materials, enigmatic hieroglyphics, 
threats by military personnel to witnesses if they didn't keep what 
they knew to themselves, and the canonical story that alien 
machinery and body parts were packed into an airplane and flown 
to the Air Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force 
Base. Some, but not all, of the recovered alien body stories are 
associated with this incident. 

Philip Klass, a long-time and dedicated UFO sceptic, has 
uncovered a subsequently declassified letter dated 27 July 1948, a 
year after the Roswell 'incident', from Major General C.B. 
Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for the US Air Force (and 
later, as a CIA official, a major figure in the abortive US invasion 
of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs). Cabell was inquiring of those who 
reported to him on what UFOs might be. He hadn't a clue. In an 
11 October 1948 summary response, explicitly including informa- 
tion in the possession of the Air Materiel Command, we find the 
Director of Intelligence being told that nobody else in the Air 
Force had a clue either. This makes it unlikely that UFO 
fragments and occupants had made their way to Wright-Patterson 
the year before. 

What the Air Force was mostly worried about was that UFOs 
were Russian. Why Russians would be testing flying saucers over 
the United States was a puzzle to which the following four answers 
were proposed: '(1) To negate US confidence in the atom bomb as 
the most advanced and decisive weapon in warfare. (2) To 
perform photographic reconnaissance missions. (3) To test US air 
defenses. (4) To conduct familiarization flights [for strategic 
bombers] over US territory.' We now know that UFOs neither 
were nor are Russian, and however dedicated the Soviet interest 
may have been to objectives (1) through (4), flying saucers 
weren't how they pursued these objectives. 



Much of the evidence regarding the Roswell 'incident' seems to 
point to a cluster of high-altitude classified balloons, perhaps 
launched from nearby Almagordo Army Air Field or White Sands 
Proving Ground, that crashed near Roswell, the debris of secret 
instruments hurriedly collected by earnest military personnel, 
early press reports announcing that it was a spaceship from 
another planet ('RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in 
Roswell Region'), diverse recollections simmering over the years, 
and memories refreshed by the opportunity for a little fame and 
fortune. (Two UFO museums in Roswell are leading tourist 

A 1994 report ordered by the Secretary of the Air Force and the 
Department of Defense in response to prodding from a New 
Mexico Congressman identifies the Roswell debris as remnants of 
a long-range, highly secret, balloon-borne low-frequency acoustic 
detection system called 'Project Mogul' - an attempt to sense 
Soviet nuclear weapons explosions at tropopause altitudes. The 
Air Force investigators, rummaging comprehensively through the 
secret files of 1947, found no evidence of heightened message 

There were no indications and warnings, notice of alerts, or a 
higher tempo of operational activity reported that would be 
logically generated if an alien craft, whose intentions were 
unknown, entered U.S. territory . . . The records indicate 
that none of this happened (or if it did, it was controlled by a 
security system so efficient and tight that no one, U.S. or 
otherwise, has been able to duplicate it since. If such a system 
had been in effect at the time, it would have also been used to 
protect our atomic secrets from the Soviets, which history has 
shown obviously was not the case.) 

The radar targets carried by the balloons were partly manufac- 
tured by novelty and toy companies in New York, whose inven- 
tory of decorative icons seems to have been remembered many 
years later as alien hieroglyphics. 

The heyday of UFOs corresponds to the time when the main 
delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons was being switched from 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

aircraft to missiles. An early and important technical problem 
concerned re-entry - returning a nuclear-armed nosecone through 
the bulk of the Earth's atmosphere without burning it up in the 
process (as small asteroids and comets are destroyed in their 
passage through the upper air). Certain materials, nosecone 
geometries, and angles of entry are better than others. Observa- 
tions of re-entry (or the more spectacular launches) could very 
well reveal US progress in this vital strategic technology or, worse, 
inefficiencies in the design; such observations might suggest what 
defensive measures an adversary should take. Understandably, 
the subject was considered highly sensitive. 

Inevitably there must have been cases in which military person- 
nel were told not to talk about what they had seen, or where 
seemingly innocuous sightings were suddenly classified top secret 
with severely constrained need-to-know criteria. Air Force offic- 
ers and civilian scientists thinking back about it in later years 
might very well conclude that the government had engineered a 
UFO cover-up. Ifnosecones are judged UFOs, the charge is a fair 

Consider spoofing. In the strategic confrontation between the 
United States and the Soviet Union, the adequacy of air defences 
was a vital issue. It was item (3) on General Cabell's list. If you 
could find a weakness, it might be the key to 'victory' in an all-out 
nuclear war. The only sure way to test your adversary's defences is 
to fly an aircraft over their borders and see how long it takes for 
them to notice. The United States did this routinely to test Soviet 
air defences. 

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States had state-of-the-art 
radar defence systems covering its west and east coasts, and 
especially its northern approaches (over which a Soviet bomber or 
missile attack would most likely come). But there was a soft 
underbelly - no significant early warning system to detect the 
geographically much more taxing southern approach. This is of 
course information vital for a potential adversary. It immediately 
suggests a spoof: one or more of the adversary's high-performance 
aircraft zoom out of the Caribbean, let's say, into US airspace, 
penetrating, let's say, a few hundred miles up the Mississippi 
River until a US air defence radar locks on. Then the intruders 



hightail it out of there. (Or, as a control experiment, a unit of US 
high-performance aircraft is sequestered and sent in unannounced 
sorties to determine how porous American air defences are.) In 
such a case, there may be combined visual and radar sightings by 
military and civilian observers and large numbers of independent 
reports. What is reported corresponds to no known aircraft. The 
Air Force and civilian aviation authorities truthfully state that 
none of their aircraft was responsible. Even if they've been urging 
Congress to fund a southern Early Warning System, the Air Force 
is unlikely to admit that Soviet or Cuban aircraft got to New 
Orleans, much less Memphis, before anybody caught on. 

Here again, we have every reason to expect a high-level 
technical investigating team, Air Force and civilian observers told 
to keep their mouths shut, and not just the appearance but the 
reality of suppression of the data. Again, this conspiracy of silence 
need have nothing to do with alien spacecraft. Even decades later, 
there are bureaucratic reasons for the Department of Defense to 
be close-mouthed about such embarrassments. There is a poten- 
tial conflict of interest between parochial concerns of the Depart- 
ment of Defense and the solution of the UFO enigma. 

In addition, something that both the Central Intelligence 
Agency and the US Air Force worried about then was UFOs as a 
means of clogging communication channels in a national crisis, 
and confusing visual and radar sightings of enemy aircraft - a 
signal-to-noise problem that in a way is the flip side of spoofing. 

In view of all this, I'm perfectly prepared to believe that at least 
some UFO reports and analyses, and perhaps voluminous files, 
have been made inaccessible to the public which pays the bills. 
The Cold War is over, the missile and balloon technology is 
largely obsolete or widely available, and those who would be 
embarrassed are no longer on active duty. The worst that would 
happen, from the military's point of view, is that there would be 
one more acknowledged instance of the American public being 
misled or lied to in the interest of national security. It's time for 
the files to be declassified and made generally available. 

Another instructive intersection of the conspiracy tempera- 
ment and the secrecy culture concerns the National Security 
Agency. This organization monitors the telephone, radio and 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

other communications of both friends and adversaries of the 
United States. Surreptitiously, it reads the world's mail. Its daily 
intercept traffic is huge. In times of tension, vast arrays of NSA 
personnel fluent in the relevant languages are sitting with ear- 
phones, monitoring in real time everything from encrypted com- 
mands from the target nation's General Staff to pillow talk. For 
other material there are key words by which computers cull out 
for human attention specific messages or conversations of current 
urgent concern. Everything is stored, so that retrospectively it is 
possible to go back to the magnetic tapes and to trace the first 
appearance of a codeword, say, or command responsibility in a 
crisis. Some of the intercepts are made from listening posts in 
nearby countries (Turkey for Russia, India for China), from 
aircraft and ships patrolling nearby, or from ferret satellites in 
Earth orbit. There is a continuing dance of measures and counter- 
measures between the NSA and the security services of other 
nations, who understandably do not wish to be listened in on. 

Now add to this already heady mix the Freedom of Information 
Act (FOIA). A request is made to the NSA for all information it 
has available on UFOs. It is required by law to be responsive, but 
of course without revealing 'methods and sources'. NSA also feels 
a deep obligation not to alert other nations, friends or foes, in an 
obtrusive and politically embarrassing way, to its activities. So a 
more or less typical intercept released by NSA in response to an 
FOIA request will be a third of a page blacked out, a fragment of 
a line saying 'reported a UFO at low altitude', followed by 
two-thirds of a page blacked out. The NSA's position is that 
releasing the rest of the page would potentially compromise 
sources and methods, or at least alert the nation in question to 
how readily its aviation radio traffic is being intercepted. (If NSA 
released surrounding, seemingly bland, aircraft-to-tower trans- 
missions, it would then be possible for the nation in question to 
recognize that its military air traffic control dialogues are being 
monitored and to switch to communications means - frequency 
hopping, for example - that make NSA intercepts more difficult.) 
But UFO conspiracy theorists receiving, in response to their 
FOIA requests, dozens of pages of material, almost all of it 
blacked out, understandably deduce that the NSA possesses 



extensive information on UFOs and is part of a conspiracy of 

In talking not for attribution with NSA officials, I am told the 
following story: typical intercepts are of military and civilian 
aircraft radioing that they see a UFO, by which they mean an 
unidentified object in the surrounding airspace. It may even be 
US aircraft on reconnaissance or spoofing missions. In most cases 
it is something much more ordinary, and the clarification is also 
reported on later NSA intercepts. 

Similar logic can be used to make NSA seem a part of any 
conspiracy. For example, they say, a response was required to an 
FOIA request on what the NSA knew about the singer Elvis 
Presley. (Apparitions of Mr Presley and resulting miraculous 
cures have been reported.) Well, the NSA knew a few things. For 
example, a report on the economic health of a certain nation 
reported how many Elvis Presley tapes and CDs were sold there. 
This information also was supplied as a few lines of clear in a vast 
ocean of censorship black. Was NSA engaged in an Elvis Presley 
cover-up? While of course I have not personally investigated 
NSA's UFO-related traffic, their story seems to me very plausible. 

If we are convinced that the government is keeping visits of 
aliens from us, then we should take on the secrecy culture of the 
military and intelligence establishments. At the very least we can 
push for declassification of relevant information from decades 
ago, of which the July 1994 Air Force report on the 'Roswell 
Incident' is a good example. 

You can catch a flavour of the paranoid style of many UFOlo- 
gists, as well as a naivete about the secrecy culture, in a book by a 
former New York Times reporter, Howard Blum (Out There, 
Simon and Schuster, 1990): 

I could not, no matter how inventively I tried, avoid slamming 
into sudden dead ends. The whole story was always lingering, 
deliberately, I came to believe, just out of my grasp. 

This was the single, practical, impossible question that was 
balanced ominously on the tall peak of my mounting suspi- 
cions. Why were all these official spokesmen and institutions 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

doing their collusive best to hinder and obstruct my efforts? 
Why were stories true one day, and false the next? Why all 
the tense, unyielding secretiveness? Why were military intel- 
ligence agents spreading disinformation, driving UFO believ- 
ers mad? What had the government found out there? What 
was it trying to hide? 

Of course there's resistance. Some information is classified legiti- 
mately; as with military hardware, secrecy sometimes really is in 
the national interest. Further, military, political and intelligence 
communities tend to value secrecy for its own sake. It's a way of 
silencing critics and evading responsibility for incompetence or 
worse. It generates an elite, a band of brothers in whom the 
national confidence can be reliably vested, unlike the great mass 
of citizenry on whose behalf the information is presumably made 
secret in the first place. With a few exceptions, secrecy is deeply 
incompatible with democracy and with science. 

One of the most provocative purported intersections of UFOs and 
secrecy are the so-called MJ-12 documents. In late 1984, so the story 
goes, an envelope containing a canister of exposed but undeveloped 
film was thrust into the home mail slot of a film producer, Jaime 
Shandera, interested in UFOs and government cover-up, remark- 
ably, just as he was about to go out and have lunch with the author of 
a book on the alleged events in Roswell, New Mexico. When 
developed, it 'proved to be' page after page of a highly classified 
'eyes only' executive order dated 24 September 1947 in which 
President Harry S. Truman seemingly established a committee of 
twelve scientists and government officials to examine a set of crashed 
flying saucers and little alien bodies. The membership of the MJ-12 
committee is remarkable because these are just the military, intelli- 
gence, science and engineering people who might have been called to 
investigate such crashes if they had occurred. In the MJ-12 docu- 
ments there are tantalizing references to appendices about the nature 
of the aliens, the technology of their ships and so on, but the 
appendices were not included in the mysterious film. 

The Air Force says that the document is bogus. The UFO 
expert Philip J. Klass and others find lexicographic and typo- 
graphic inconsistencies that suggest that the whole thing is a hoax. 



Those who purchase fine art are concerned about the provenance 
of their painting - that is, who owned it most recently and who 
before that . . . and so on all the way back to the original artist. If 
there are breaks in the chain, if a 300-year-old painting can be 
tracked back only sixty years and then we have no idea in what 
home or museum it was hanging, the forgery warning flags go up. 
Because the rewards of forgery in fine art are high, collectors must 
be very cautious. Where the MJ-12 documents are most vulner- 
able and suspect is exactly on this question of provenance - the 
evidence miraculously dropped on a doorstep like something out 
of a fairy story, perhaps 'The Shoemaker and the Elves'. 

There are many cases in human history of a similar character - 
where a document of dubious provenance suddenly appears 
carrying information of great import which strongly supports the 
case of those who have made the discovery. After careful and in 
some cases courageous investigation the document is proved to be 
a hoax. There is no difficulty in understanding the motivation of 
the hoaxers. A more or less typical example is the book of 
Deuteronomy - discovered hidden in the Temple in Jerusalem by 
King Josiah, who, miraculously, in the midst of a major reforma- 
tion struggle, found in Deuteronomy confirmation of all his views. 

Another case is what is called the Donation of Constantine. 
Constantine the Great is the Emperor who made Christianity the 
official religion of the Roman Empire. The city of Constantinople 
(now Istanbul), for over a thousand years the capital of the 
Eastern Roman Empire, was named after him. He died in the year 
335. In the ninth century, references to the Donation of Constan- 
tine suddenly appeared in Christian writings; in it Constantine 
wills to his contemporary, Pope Sylvester I, the entire Western 
Roman Empire, including Rome. This little gift, so the story 
went, was partly in gratitude for Sylvester's cure of Constantine's 
leprosy. By the eleventh century, popes were regularly referring 
to the Donation of Constantine to justify their claims to be not 
only the ecclesiastical but also the secular rulers of central Italy. 
Through the Middle Ages the Donation was judged genuine both 
by those who supported and by those who opposed the temporal 
claims of the Church. 

Lorenzo of Valla was one of the polymaths of the Italian 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

Renaissance. A controversialist, crusty, critical, arrogant, a ped- 
ant, he was attacked by his contemporaries for sacrilege, impu- 
dence, temerity and presumption, among other imperfections. 
After he concluded that the Apostles' Creed could not on 
grammatical grounds have actually been written by the Twelve 
Apostles, the Inquisition declared him a heretic, and only the 
intervention of his patron, Alfonso, King of Naples, prevented his 
immolation. Undeterred, in 1440, he published a treatise demon- 
strating that the Donation of Constantine is a crude forgery. The 
language in which it was written was to fourth century court Latin 
as Cockney was to the King's English. Because of Lorenzo of 
Valla, the Roman Catholic Church no longer presses its claim to 
rule European nations because of the Donation of Constantine. 
This work, whose provenance has a five-century hole in it, is 
generally understood to have been forged by a cleric attached to 
the Church's curia around the time of Charlemagne, when the 
papacy (and especially Pope Adrian I) was arguing for unification 
of church and state. 

Assuming they both belong to the same category, the MJ-12 
documents are a cleverer hoax than the Donation of Constantine. 
But on matters of provenance, vested interest and lexicographic 
inconsistencies, they have much in common. 

A cover-up to keep knowledge of extraterrestrial life or alien 
abductions almost wholly secret for forty-five years, with hun- 
dreds if not thousands of government employees privy to it, is a 
remarkable notion. Certainly, government secrets are routinely 
kept, even secrets of substantial general interest. But the ostensi- 
ble point of such secrecy is to protect the country and its citizens. 
Here, though, it's different. The alleged conspiracy of those with 
security clearances is to keep from the citizens knowledge of a 
continuing alien assault on the human species. If extraterrestrials 
really were abducting millions of us, it would be much more than a 
matter of national security. It would affect the security of all 
human beings everywhere on Earth. Given such stakes, is it 
plausible that no one with real knowledge and evidence, in nearly 
200 nations, would blow the whistle, speak out and side with the 
humans rather than the aliens? 

Since the end of the Cold War NASA has been flailing about, 



trying to find missions that justify its existence - particularly a 
good reason for humans in space. If the Earth were being visited 
daily by hostile aliens, wouldn't NASA leap on this opportunity to 
augment its funding? And if an alien invasion were in progress, 
why would the Air Force, traditionally led by pilots, step back 
from manned spaceflight and launch all its payloads on unmanned 

Consider the former Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, 
in charge of 'Star Wars'. It's fallen on hard times now, particularly 
its objective of basing defences in space. Its name and perspective 
have been demoted. It's the Ballistic Missile Defense Organiza- 
tion these days. It no longer even reports directly to the Secretary 
of Defense. The inability of such technology to protect the United 
States against a massive attack by nuclear-armed missiles is 
manifest. But wouldn't we want at least to attempt deployment of 
defences in space if we were facing an alien invasion? 

The Department of Defense, like similar ministries in every 
nation, thrives on enemies, real or imagined. It is implausible in 
the extreme that the existence of such an adversary would be 
suppressed by the very organization that would most benefit from 
its presence. The entire post-Cold War posture of the military and 
civilian space programmes of the United States (and other 
nations) speaks powerfully against the idea that there are aliens 
among us - unless, of course, the news is also being kept from 
those who plan the national defence. 

Just as there are those who accept every UFO report at face value, 
there are also those who dismiss the idea of alien visitation out of 
hand and with great passion. It is, they say, unnecessary to 
examine the evidence, and 'unscientific' even to contemplate the 
issue. I once helped to organize a public debate at the annual 
meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of 
Science between proponent and opponent scientists of the propo- 
sition that some UFOs were spaceships; whereupon a distin- 
guished physicist, whose judgement in many other matters I 
respected, threatened to set the Vice President of the United 
States on me if I persisted in this madness. (Nevertheless, the 
debate was held and published, the issues were a little better 


Spoofing and Secrecy 

clarified, and I did not hear from Spiro T. Agnew.) 

A 1969 study by the National Academy of Sciences, while 
recognizing that there are reports 'not easily explained', con- 
cluded that 'the least likely explanation of UFOs is the hypothesis 
of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings'. Think of how 
many other 'explanations' there might be: time travellers; demons 
from witchland; tourists from another dimension - like Mr 
Mxyztplk (or was it Mxyzptlk? I always forget) from the land of 
Zrfff in the Fifth Dimension in the old Superman comic books; the 
souls of the dead; or a 'noncartesian' phenomenon that doesn't 
obey the rules of science or even of logic. Each of these 'explana- 
tions' has in fact been seriously proffered. 'Least likely' is really 
saying something. This rhetorical excess is an index of how 
distasteful the whole subject has become to many scientists. 

It's telling that emotions can run so high on a matter about 
which we really know so little. This is especially true of the more 
recent flurry of alien abduction reports. After all, if true, either 
hypothesis - invasion by sexually manipulative extraterrestrials or 
an epidemic of hallucinations - teaches us something we certainly 
ought to know about. Maybe the reason for strong feelings is that 
both alternatives have such unpleasant implications. 


The number of reports and their consistency suggest that 
there may be some basis for these sightings other than 
hallucinogenic drugs. 

Mystery Aircraft 
report, Federation of American Scientists 
20 August, 1992 

Aurora is a high-altitude, extremely secret American 
^ ^.reconnaissance aircraft, a successor to the U-2 and the 
SR-71 Blackbird. It either exists or it doesn't. By 1993, there 



were reports by observers near California's Edwards Air 
Force Base and Groom Lake, Nevada, and particularly a 
region of Groom Lake called Area 51 where experimental 
aircraft for the Department of Defense are tested, that 
seemed by and large mutually consistent. Confirming reports 
were filed from all over the world. Unlike its predecessors, 
the aircraft is said to be hypersonic, to travel much faster, 
perhaps six to eight times faster, than the speed of sound. It 
leaves an odd contrail described as 'donuts-on-a-rope'. Per- 
haps it is also a means of launching small secret satellites into 
orbit, developed, it is speculated, after the Challenger disas- 
ter indicated the shuttle's episodic unreliability for defence 
payloads. But the CIA 'swears up and down there's no such 
programme', says US Senator and former astronaut John 
Glenn. The principal designer of some of the most secret US 
aircraft says the same thing. A Secretary of the Air Force has 
vehemently denied the existence of such an airplane, or any 
programme to build one, in the US Air Force or anywhere 
else. Would he lie? 'We have looked into all such sightings, as 
we have for UFO reports,' says an Air Force spokesman, in 
perhaps carefully chosen words, 'and we cannot explain 
them.' Meanwhile, in April 1995 the Air Force seized 4,000 
more acres near Area 5 1 . The area to which public access is 
denied is growing. 

Consider then the two possibilities: that Aurora exists, and 
that it does not. If it exists, it's striking that an official 
cover-up of its very existence has been attempted, that 
secrecy could be so effective, and that the aircraft could be 
tested or refuelled all over the world without a single 
photograph of it or any other hard evidence being published. 
On the other hand, if Aurora does not exist, it's striking that a 
myth has been propagated so vigorously and gone so far. 
Why should insistent official denials have carried so little 
weight? Could the very existence of a designation -Aurora in 
this case - serve to pin a common label on a range of diverse 
phenomena? Either way, Aurora seems relevant to UFOs. 




[A]s children tremble and fear everything in the blind 
darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more 
to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in 
terror . . . 

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 
(c. 60 BC) 

Advertisers must know their audiences. It's a simple matter of 
product and corporate survival. So we can learn how com- 
mercial, free-enterprise America views UFO buffs by examining 
the advertisements in magazines devoted to UFOs. Here are some 
(entirely typical) ad headlines from an issue of UFO Universe: 

• Senior Research Scientist Discovers 2,000-Year-Old Secret to 
Wealth, Power, and Romantic Love. 

• Classified! Above Top Secret. The Most Sensational Govern- 
ment Conspiracy of Our Time Is Finally Revealed to the World 
by a Retired Military Officer. 

• What Is Your 'Special Mission' While on Earth? The Cosmic 
Awakening of Light Workers, Walk-Ins, & All Star-Born 
Representatives Has Begun! 

• This Is What You Have Been Waiting For. 24 Superb, Incred- 
ible Life-Improving UFO Seals of the Spirits. 

• I Got a Girl. Do You? Stop Missing Out! Get Girls Now! 



• Subscribe Today to the Most Amazing Magazine in the Uni- 

• Bring Miraculous Good Luck, Love, and Money into Your 
Life! These Powers Have Worked for Centuries! They Can 
Work for You. 

• Amazing Psychic Research Breakthrough. It Takes Only 5 
Minutes to Prove that Psychic Magic Powers Really Work! 

• Have You the Courage to Be Lucky, Loved and Rich? 
Guaranteed Good Fortune Will Come Your Way! Get 
Everything You Want with the Most Powerful Talismans in 
the World. 

• Men in Black: Government Agents or Aliens? 

• Increase the Power of Gemstones, Charms, Seals and Symbols. 
Improve the Effectiveness of Everything You Do. Magnify 
Your Mind Power and Abilities with the Mind Power MAGNI- 

• The Famous Money Magnet: Would You Like More Money? 

• Testament of Lael, Sacred Scriptures of a Lost Civilization. 

• A New Book by 'Commander X' from Inner Light: The 
Controllers, the Hidden Rulers of Earth Identified. We Are the 
Property of an Alien Intelligence! 

What is the common thread that binds these ads together? Not 
UFOs. Surely it's the expectation of unlimited audience gullibil- 
ity. That's why they're placed in UFO magazines - because by and 
large the very act of buying such a magazine so categorizes the 
reader. Doubtless, there are moderately sceptical and fully 
rational purchasers of these periodicals who are demeaned by 
such expectations of advertisers and editors. But if they're right 
even about the bulk of their readers, what might it mean for the 
alien abduction paradigm? 

Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in 'contact' 
with extraterrestrials. I am invited to 'ask them anything'. And 
so over the years I've prepared a little list of questions. The 
extraterrestrials are very advanced, remember. So I ask things 
like, 'Please provide a short proof of Fermat's Last Theorem'. 
Or the Goldbach Conjecture. And then I have to explain what 
these are because extraterrestrials will not call it Fermat's Last 



Theorem. So I write out the simple equation with the exponents. I 
never get an answer. On the other hand, if I ask something like 
'Should we be good?' I almost always get an answer. Anything 
vague, especially involving conventional moral judgements, these 
aliens are extremely happy to respond to. But on anything 
specific, where there is a chance to find out if they actually know 
anything beyond what most humans know, there is only silence.* 
Something can be deduced from this differential ability to answer 

In the good old days before the alien abduction paradigm, 
people taken aboard UFOs were offered, so they reported, 
edifying lectures on the dangers of nuclear war. Nowadays, when 
such instruction is given, the extraterrestrials seem fixated on 
environmental degradation and AIDS. How is it, I ask myself, 
that UFO occupants are so bound to fashionable or urgent 
concerns on this planet? Why not an incidental warning about 
CFCs and ozone depletion in the 1950s, or about the HIV virus in 
the 1970s, when it might really have done some good? Why not 
alert us now to some public health or environmental threat we 
haven't yet figured out? Can it be that aliens know only as much as 
those who report their presence? And if one of the chief purposes 
of alien visitations is admonitions about global dangers, why tell it 
only to a few people whose accounts are suspect anyway? Why not 
take over the television networks for a night, or appear with vivid 
cautionary audiovisuals before the United Nations Security Coun- 
cil? Surely this is not too difficult for those who wing across the 
light years. 

The earliest commercially successful UFO 'contactee' was George 
Adamski. He operated a tiny restaurant at the foot of California's 
Mount Palomar, and set up a small telescope out back. At the 
summit of the mountain was the largest telescope on Earth, the 

* It's a stimulating exercise to think of questions to which no human today knows 
the answers, but where a correct answer would immediately be recognized as 
such. It's even more challenging to formulate such questions in fields other 
than mathematics. Perhaps we should hold a contest and collect the best 
responses in 'Ten Questions to Ask an Alien'. 



200-inch reflector of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and 
the California Institute of Technology. Adamski styled himself 
Professor Adamski of Mount Palomar Observatory. He published 
a book - it caused quite a sensation, I recall - in which he 
described how in the desert nearby he had encountered nice- 
looking aliens with long blond hair and, if I remember correctly, 
white robes who warned Adamski about the dangers of nuclear 
war. They hailed from the planet Venus (whose 900° Fahrenheit 
surface temperature we can now recognize as a barrier to Adam- 
ski's credibility). In person, he was utterly convincing. The Air 
Force officer nominally in charge of UFO investigations at the 
time described Adamski in these words: 

To look at the man and to listen to his story you had an 
immediate urge to believe him. Maybe it was his appearance. 
He was dressed in well worn, but neat, overalls. He had 
slightly graying hair and the most honest pair of eyes I've ever 

Adamski 's star slowly faded as he aged, but he self-published 
other books and was a long-standing fixture at conventions of 
flying saucer 'believers'. 

The first alien abduction story in the modern genre was that of 
Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple, she a social 
worker and he a Post Office employee. During a late-night drive 
in 1961 through the White Mountains, Betty spotted a bright, 
initially star-like UFO that seemed to follow them. Because 
Barney feared it might harm them, they left the main highway for 
narrow mountain roads, arriving home two hours later than they'd 
expected. The experience prompted Betty to read a book that 
described UFOs as spaceships from other worlds; their occupants 
were little men who sometimes abducted humans. 

Soon after, she experienced a terrifying, repetitive nightmare in 
which she and Barney were abducted and taken aboard the UFO. 
Barney overheard her describing this dream to friends, 
co-workers and volunteer UFO investigators. (It's curious that 
Betty didn't discuss it with her husband directly.) By a week or so 
after the experience, they were describing a 'pancake'-like UFO 



with uniformed figures seen through the craft's transparent windows. 

Several years later, Barney's psychiatrist referred him to a 
Boston hypnotherapist, Benjamin Simon, MD. Betty came to be 
hypnotized as well. Under hypnosis they separately filled in 
details of what had happened during the 'missing' two hours: they 
watched the UFO land on the highway and were taken, partly 
immobilized, inside the craft where short, grey, humanoid crea- 
tures with long noses (a detail discordant with the current 
paradigm) subjected them to unconventional medical examina- 
tions, including a needle in her navel (before amniocentesis had 
been invented on Earth). There are those who now believe that 
eggs were taken from Betty's ovaries and sperm from Barney, 
although that isn't part of the original story.* The captain showed 
Betty a map of interstellar space with the ship's routes marked. 

Martin S. Kottmeyer has shown that many of the motifs in the 
Hills' account can be found in a 1953 motion picture, Invaders 
from Mars. And Barney's story of what the aliens looked like, 
especially their enormous eyes, emerged in a hypnosis session just 
twelve days after the airing of an episode of the television series 
'The Outer Limits' in which such an alien was portrayed. 

The Hill case was widely discussed. It was made into a 1975 TV 
movie that introduced the idea that short, grey alien abductors are 
among us into the psyches of millions of people. But even the few 
scientists of the time who thought that some UFOs might in fact 
be alien spaceships were wary. The alleged encounter was con- 
spicuous by its absence from the list of suggestive UFO cases 
compiled by James E. McDonald, a University of Arizona atmos- 
pheric physicist. In general, those scientists who have taken UFOs 
seriously have tended to keep the alien abduction accounts at 
arm's length, while those who take alien abductions at face value 
see little reason to analyse mere lights in the sky. 

McDonald's view on UFOs was based, he said, not on irrefuta- 
ble evidence, but was a conclusion of last resort: all the alternative 

* In more recent times, Ms Hill has written that in real abductions, 'no sexual 
interest is shown. However, frequently they help themselves to some of [the 
abductee's] belongings, such as fishing rods, jewelry of different types, 
eyeglasses or a cup of laundry soap.' 



explanations seemed to him even less credible. In the middle 
1960s I arranged for McDonald to present his best cases in a 
private meeting with leading physicists and astronomers who had 
not before staked a claim on the UFO issue. Not only did he fail to 
convince them that we were being visited by extraterrestrials; he 
failed even to excite their interest. And this was a group with a 
very high wonder quotient. It was simply that where McDonald 
saw aliens, they saw much more prosaic explanations. 

I was glad to have an opportunity to spend several hours with 
Mr and Mrs Hill and with Dr Simon. There was no mistaking the 
earnestness and sincerity of Betty and Barney, and their mixed 
feelings about becoming public figures under such odd and 
awkward circumstances. With the Hills' permission, Dr Simon 
played for me (and, at my invitation, McDonald) some of the 
audiotapes of their sessions under hypnosis. By far my most 
striking impression was the absolute terror in Barney's voice as he 
described - 're-lived' would be a better word - the encounter. 

Dr Simon, while a leading proponent of the virtues of hypnosis 
in war and peace, had not been caught up in the public frenzy 
about UFOs. He shared handsomely in the royalties of John 
Fuller's best-seller, Interrupted Journey, about the Hills' experi- 
ence. If Dr Simon had pronounced their account authentic, the 
sales of the book might have gone through the roof and his own 
financial reward been considerably augmented. But he didn't. He 
also instantly rejected the notion that they were lying, or, as 
suggested by another psychiatrist, that this was a folie a deux - a 
shared delusion in which, generally, the submissive partner goes 
along with the delusion of the dominant partner. So what's left? 
The Hills, said their psychotherapist, had experienced a species of 
'dream'. Together. 

There may very well be more than one source of alien abduction 
accounts, just as there are for UFO sightings. Let's run through 
some of the possibilities. 

In 1894 The International Census of Waking Hallucinations was 
published in London. From that time to this, repeated surveys have 
shown that 10 to 25 per cent of ordinary, functioning people have 
experienced, at least once in their lifetimes, a vivid hallucination, 



hearing a voice, usually, or seeing a form when there's no one there. 
More rarely, people sense a haunting aroma, or hear music, or 
receive a revelation that arrives independent of the senses. In some 
cases these become transforming personal events or profound reli- 
gious experiences. Hallucinations may be a neglected low door in the 
wall to a scientific understanding of the sacred. 

Probably a dozen times since their deaths I've heard my mother 
or father, in a conversational tone of voice, call my name. Of 
course they called to me often during my life with them - to do a 
chore, to remind me of a responsibility, to come to dinner, to 
engage in conversation, to hear about an event of the day. I still 
miss them so much that it doesn't seem at all strange that my brain 
will occasionally retrieve a lucid recollection of their voices. 

Such hallucinations may occur to perfectly normal people under 
perfectly ordinary circumstances. Hallucinations can also be elic- 
ited: by a campfire at night, or under emotional stress, or during 
epileptic seizures or migraine headaches or high fever, or by 
prolonged fasting or sleeplessness* or sensory deprivation (for 
example, in solitary confinement), or through hallucinogens such 
as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or hashish. (Delirium tremens, the 
dreaded alcohol-induced DTs, is one well-known manifestation of 
a withdrawal syndrome from alcoholism.) There are also mol- 
ecules, such as the phenothiazines (thorazine, for example), that 
make hallucinations go away. It is very likely that the normal 
human body generates substances - perhaps including the 
morphine-like small brain proteins called endorphins - that cause 
hallucinations, and others that suppress them. Such celebrated 

* Dreams are associated with a state called REM sleep, the abbreviation 
standing for rapid eye movement. (Under the closed eyelids the eyes move, 
perhaps following the action in the dream, or perhaps randomly.) The REM 
state is strongly correlated with sexual arousal. Experiments have been 
performed in which sleeping subjects are awakened whenever the REM state 
emerges, while members of a control group are awakened just as often each 
night but not when they're dreaming. After some days, the control group is a 
little groggy, but the experimental group - the ones who are prevented from 
dreaming - is hallucinating in daytime. It's not that a few people with a 
particular abnormality can be made to hallucinate in this way; anyone is 
capable of hallucinations. 



(and unhysterical) explorers as Admiral Richard Byrd, Captain 
Joshua Slocum and Sir Ernest Shackleton all experienced vivid 
hallucinations when coping with unusual isolation and loneliness. 

Whatever their neurological and molecular antecedents, hallu- 
cinations feel real. They are sought out in many cultures and 
considered a sign of spiritual enlightenment. Among the Native 
Americans of the Western Plains, for example, or many indig- 
enous Siberian cultures, a young man's future was foreshadowed 
by the nature of the hallucination he experienced after a successful 
'vision quest'; its meaning was discussed with great seriousness 
among the elders and shamans of the tribe. There are countless 
instances in the world's religions where patriarchs, prophets or 
saviours repair themselves to desert or mountain and, assisted by 
hunger and sensory deprivation, encounter gods or demons. 
Psychedelic-induced religious experiences were a hallmark of the 
western youth culture of the 1960s. The experience, however 
brought about, is often described respectfully by words such as 
'transcendent', 'numinous', 'sacred' and 'holy'. 

Hallucinations are common. If you have one, it doesn't mean 
you're crazy. The anthropological literature is replete with hallu- 
cination ethnopsychiatry, REM dreams and possession trances, 
which have many common elements transculturally and across the 
ages. The hallucinations are routinely interpreted as possession by 
good or evil spirits. The Yale anthropologist Weston La Barre 
goes so far as to argue that 'a surprisingly good case could be made 
that much of culture is hallucination' and that 'the whole intent 
and function of ritual appears to be . . . [a] group wish to 
hallucinate reality'. 

Here is a description of hallucinations as a signal-to-noise 
problem by Louis J. West, former medical director of the Neu- 
ropsychiatric Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles. 
It is taken from the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia 

[IJmagine a man standing at a closed glass window opposite 
his fireplace, looking out at his garden in the sunset. He is so 
absorbed by the view of the outside world that he fails to 
visualize the interior of the room at all. As it becomes darker 



outside, however, images of the objects in the room behind 
him can be seen reflected dimly in the window glass. For a 
time he may see either the garden (if he gazes into the 
distance) or the reflection of the room's interior (if he focuses 
on the glass a few inches from his face). Night falls, but the 
fire still burns brightly in the fireplace and illuminates the 
room. The watcher now sees in the glass a vivid reflection of 
the interior of the room behind him, which appears to be 
outside the window. This illusion becomes dimmer as the fire 
dies down, and, finally, when it is dark both outside and 
within, nothing more is seen. If the fire flares up from time to 
time, the visions in the glass reappear. 

In an analogous way, hallucinatory experiences such as those 
of normal dreams occur when the 'daylight' (sensory input) is 
reduced while the 'interior illumination' (general level of brain 
arousal) remains 'bright', and images originating within the 
'rooms' of our brains may be perceived (hallucinated) as though 
they came from outside the 'windows' of our senses. 

Another analogy might be that dreams, like the stars, are 
shining all the time. Though the stars are not often seen by day, 
since the sun shines too brightly, if, during the day, there is an 
eclipse of the sun, or if a viewer chooses to be watchful awhile 
after sunset or awhile before sunrise, or if he is awakened from 
time to time on a clear night to look at the sky, then the stars, 
like dreams, though often forgotten, may always be seen. 

A more brain-related concept is that of a continuous 
information-processing activity (a kind of 'preconscious 
stream') that is influenced continually by both conscious and 
unconscious forces and that constitutes the potential supply 
of dream content. The dream is an experience during which, 
for a few minutes, the individual has some awareness of the 
stream of data being processed. Hallucinations in the waking 
state also would involve the same phenomenon, produced by 
a somewhat different set of psychological or physiological 
circumstances . . . 

It appears that all human behaviour and experience (normal 
as well as abnormal) is well attended by illusory and hallucina- 
tory phenomena. While the relationship of these phenomena to 



mental illness has been well documented, their role in everyday 
life has perhaps not been considered enough. Greater under- 
standing of illusions and hallucinations among normal people 
may provide explanations for experiences otherwise relegated 
to the uncanny, 'extrasensory', or supernatural. 

We would surely be missing something important about our own 
nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are 
part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations 
part of an external rather than an internal reality. Five to ten per 
cent of us are extremely suggestible, able to move at a command 
into a deep hypnotic trance. Roughly ten per cent of Americans 
report having seen one or more ghosts. This is more than the 
number who allegedly remember being abducted by aliens, about 
the same as the number who've reported seeing one or more 
UFOs, and less than the number who in the last week of Richard 
Nixon's Presidency, before he resigned to avoid impeachment, 
thought he was doing a good-to-excellent job as President. At 
least one per cent of all of us is schizophrenic. This amounts to 
over 50 million schizophrenics on the planet, more than the 
population of, say, England. 

In his 1970 book on nightmares, the psychiatrist John Mack - 
about whom I will have more to say - writes: 

There is a period in early childhood in which dreams are 
regarded as real and in which the events, transformations, 
gratifications, and threats of which they are composed are 
regarded by the child as if they were as much a part of his 
actual daily life as his daytime experiences. The capacity to 
establish and maintain clear distinctions between the life of 
dreams and life in the outside world is hard-won and requires 
several years to accomplish, not being completed even in 
normal children before ages eight to ten. Nightmares, 
because of their vividness and compelling effective intensity, 
are particularly difficult for the child to judge realistically. 

When a child tells a fabulous story - a witch was grimacing in the 
darkened room; a tiger is lurking under the bed; the vase was 



broken by a multi-coloured bird that flew in the window and 
not because, contrary to family rules, a football was being 
kicked inside the house - is he or she consciously lying? Surely 
parents often act as if the child cannot fully distinguish between 
fantasy and reality. Some children have active imaginations; 
others are less well endowed in this department. Some families 
may respect the ability to fantasize and encourage the child, 
while at the same time saying something like 'Oh, that's not 
real; that's just your imagination.' Other families may be 
impatient about confabulating - it makes running the house- 
hold and adjudicating disputes at least marginally more difficult 
- and discourage their children from fantasizing, perhaps even 
teaching them to think it's something shameful. A few parents 
may be unclear about the distinction between reality and 
fantasy themselves, or may even seriously enter into the 
fantasy. Out of all these contending propensities and child- 
rearing practices, some people emerge with an intact ability to 
fantasize, and a history, extending well into adulthood, of 
confabulation. Others grow up believing that anyone who 
doesn't know the difference between reality and fantasy is 
crazy. Most of us are somewhere in between. 

Abductees frequently report having seen 'aliens' in their child- 
hood - coming in through the window or from under the bed or 
out of the closet. But everywhere in the world children report 
similar stories, with fairies, elves, brownies, ghosts, goblins, 
witches, imps and a rich variety of imaginary 'friends'. Are we to 
imagine two different groups of children, one that sees imaginary 
earthly beings and the other that sees genuine extraterrestrials? 
Isn't it more reasonable that both groups are seeing, or hallucinat- 
ing, the same thing? 

Most of us recall being frightened at the age of two and older by 
real-seeming but wholly imaginary 'monsters', especially at night 
or in the dark. I can still remember occasions when I was 
absolutely terrified, hiding under the bedclothes until I could 
stand it no longer, and then bolting for the safety of my parents' 
bedroom - if only I could get there before falling into the clutches 
of . . . The Presence. The American cartoonist Gary Larson who 
draws in the horror genre dedicates one of his books as follows: 



When I was a boy, our house was filled with monsters. They 
lived in the closets, under the beds, in the attic, in the 
basement, and - when it was dark - just about everywhere. 
This book is dedicated to my father, who kept me safe from 
all of them. 

Maybe the abduction therapists should be doing more of that. 

Part of the reason that children are afraid of the dark may be 
that, in our entire evolutionary history up until just a moment 
ago, they never slept alone. Instead, they nestled safely, 
protected by an adult, usually Mum. In the enlightened west we 
stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have 
difficulty understanding why they're sometimes upset. It makes 
good evolutionary sense for children to have fantasies of scary 
monsters. In a world stalked by lions and hyenas, such fantasies 
help prevent defenceless toddlers from wandering too far from 
their guardians. How can this safety machinery be effective for 
a vigorous, curious young animal unless it delivers industrial 
strength terror? Those who are not afraid of monsters tend not 
to leave descendants. Eventually, I imagine, over the course of 
human evolution, almost all children become afraid of mon- 
sters. But if we're capable of conjuring up terrifying monsters 
in childhood, why shouldn't some of us, at least on occasion, be 
able to fantasize something similar, something truly horrifying, 
a shared delusion, as adults? 

It is telling that alien abductions occur mainly on falling 
asleep or when waking up, or on long automobile drives where 
there is a well-known danger of falling into some autohypnotic 
reverie. Abduction therapists are puzzled when their patients 
describe crying out in terror while their spouses sleep leadenly 
beside them. But isn't this typical of dreams, our shouts for 
help unheard? Might these stories have something to do with 
sleep and, as Benjamin Simon proposed for the Hills, a kind of 

A common, although insufficiently well-known, psychological 
syndrome rather like alien abduction is called sleep paralysis. 
Many people experience it. It happens in that twilight world 
between being fully awake and fully asleep. For a few minutes, 



maybe longer, you're immobile and acutely anxious. You feel a 
weight on your chest as if some being is sitting or lying there. Your 
heartbeat is quick, your breathing laboured. You may experience 
auditory or visual hallucinations of people, demons, ghosts, 
animals or birds. In the right setting, the experience can have 'the 
full force and impact of reality', according to Robert Baker, a 
psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Sometimes there's a 
marked sexual component to the hallucination. Baker argues that 
these common sleep disturbances are behind many if not most of 
the alien abduction accounts. (He and others suggest that there 
are other classes of abduction claims as well, made by fantasy- 
prone individuals, say, or hoaxers.) 

Similarly, the Harvard Mental Health Letter (September 1994) 

Sleep paralysis may last for several minutes, and is sometimes 
accompanied by vivid dreamlike hallucinations that give rise 
to stories about visitations from gods, spirits, and extraterres- 
trial creatures. 

We know from early work of the Canadian neurophysiologist 
Wilder Penfield that electrical stimulation of certain regions of 
the brain elicits full-blown hallucinations. People with temporal 
lobe epilepsy - involving a cascade of naturally generated 
electrical impulses in the part of the brain beneath the forehead 
- experience a range of hallucinations almost indistinguishable 
from reality: including the presence of one or more strange 
beings, anxiety, floating through the air, sexual experiences, 
and a sense of missing time. There is also what feels like 
profound insight into the deepest questions and a need to 
spread the word. A continuum of spontaneous temporal lobe 
stimulation seems to stretch from people with serious epilepsy 
to the most average among us. In at least one case reported by 
another Canadian neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, adminis- 
tration of the antiepileptic drug, carbamazepine, eliminated a 
woman's recurring sense of experiencing the standard alien 
abduction scenario. So such hallucinations, generated sponta- 
neously, or with chemical or experiential assists, may play a 



role, perhaps a central role, in the UFO accounts. 

But such a view is easy to burlesque: UFOs explained away as 
'mass hallucinations'. Everyone knows there's no such thing as a 
shared hallucination. Right? 

As the possibility of extraterrestrial life began to be widely 
popularized - especially around the turn of the last century by 
Percival Lowell with his Martian canals - people began to 
report contact with aliens, mainly Martians. The psychologist 
Theodore Flournoy's 1901 book, From India to the Planet Mars, 
describes a French-speaking medium who in a trance state drew 
pictures of the Martians (they look just like us) and presented 
their alphabet and language (remarkably like French). The 
psychiatrist Carl Jung in his 1902 doctoral dissertation 
described a young Swiss woman who was agitated to discover, 
sitting across from her on the train, a 'star-dweller' from Mars. 
Martians are innocent of science, philosophy and souls, she was 
told, but have advanced technology. 'Flying machines have 
long been in existence on Mars; the whole of Mars is covered 
with canals' and so on. Charles Fort, a collector of anomalous 
reports who died in 1932, wrote, 'Perhaps there are inhabitants 
of Mars, who are secretly sending reports upon the ways of this 
world to their governments.' In the 1950s there was a book by 
Gerald Heard that revealed the saucer occupants to be intelli- 
gent Martian bees. Who else could survive the fantastic right 
angle turns reported for UFOs? 

But after the canals were shown to be illusory by Mariner 9 in 
1971, and after no compelling evidence even for microbes was 
found on Mars by Vikings 1 and 2 in 1976, popular enthusiasm for 
the Lowellian Mars waned and we heard little about visiting 
Martians. Aliens were then reported to come from somewhere 
else. Why? Why no more Martians? And after the surface of 
Venus was found to be hot enough to melt lead, there were no 
more visiting Venusians. Does some part of these stories adjust to 
the current canons of belief? What does that imply about their 

There's no doubt that humans commonly hallucinate. There's 
considerable doubt about whether extraterrestrials exist, frequent 



our planet, or abduct and molest us. We might argue about 
details, but the one category of explanation is surely much better 
supported than the other. The main reservation you might then 
have is: why do so many people today report this particular set of 
hallucinations? Why sombre little beings, and flying saucers, and 
sexual experimentation? 



The Demon-Haunted World 

There are demon-haunted worlds, regions of utter darkness. 

The ISA Upanishad 
(India, c. 600 BC) 

Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which 
every one in himself calleth religion. 

Thomas Hobbes, 
Leviathan (1651) 

The gods watch over us and guide our destinies, many human 
cultures teach; other entities, more malevolent, are responsi- 
ble for the existence of evil. Both classes of beings, whether 
considered natural or supernatural, real or imaginary, serve 
human needs. Even if they're wholly fanciful, people feel better 
believing in them. So in an age when traditional religions have 
been under withering fire from science, is it not natural to wrap up 
the old gods and demons in scientific raiment and call them aliens? 

Belief in demons was widespread in the ancient world. They were 
thought of as natural rather than supernatural beings. Hesiod 
casually mentions them. Socrates described his philosophical 
inspiration as the work of a personal, benign demon. His teacher, 
Diotima of Mantineia, tells him (in Plato's Symposium) that 
'Everything demonic is intermediate between God and mortal. 


The Demon-Haunted World 

God has no contact with man,' she continues; 'only through the 
demonic is there intercourse and conversation between man and 
gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep.' 

Plato, Socrates' most celebrated student, assigned a high role to 
demons: 'No human nature invested with supreme power is able 
to order human affairs,' he said, 'and not overflow with insolence 
and wrong . . .' 

We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of 
goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. 
In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the 
demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and 
pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and 
giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never 
failing, made the tribes of men happy and united. 

He stoutly denied that demons were a source of evil, and 
represented Eros, the keeper of sexual passions, as a demon, not a 
god, 'neither mortal nor immortal', 'neither good nor bad'. But all 
later Platonists, including the Neo-Platonists who powerfully 
influenced Christian philosophy, held that some demons were 
good and others evil. The pendulum was swinging. Aristotle, 
Plato's famous student, seriously considered the contention that 
dreams are scripted by demons. Plutarch and Porphyry proposed 
that the demons, who filled the upper air, came from the Moon. 

The early Church Fathers, despite having imbibed Neo- 
Platonism from the culture they swam in, were anxious to separate 
themselves from 'pagan' belief systems. They taught that all of 
pagan religion consisted of the worship of demons and men, both 
misconstrued as gods. When St Paul complained (Ephesians vi, 
12) about wickedness in high places, he was referring not to 
government corruption, but to demons, who lived in high places: 

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against 
principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the dark- 
ness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. 

From the beginning, much more was intended than demons as a 



mere poetic metaphor for the evil in the hearts of men. 

St Augustine was much vexed with demons. He quotes the 
pagan thinking prevalent in his time: 'The gods occupy the loftiest 
regions, men the lowest, the demons the middle region . . . They 
have immortality of body, but passions of the mind in common 
with men.' In Book VIII of The City of God (begun in 413), 
Augustine assimilates this ancient tradition, replaces gods by 
God, and demonizes the demons, arguing that they are, without 
exception, malign. They have no redeeming virtues. They are the 
fount of all spiritual and material evil. He calls them 'aerial 
animals . . . most eager to inflict harm, utterly alien from right- 
eousness, swollen with pride, pale with envy, subtle in deceit.' 
They may profess to carry messages between God and man, 
disguising themselves as angels of the Lord, but this pose is a snare 
to lure us to our destruction. They can assume any form, and 
know many things - 'demon' means 'knowledge' in Greek* - 
especially about the material world. However intelligent, they are 
deficient in charity. They prey on 'the captive and outwitted minds 
of men,' wrote Tertullian. 'They have their abode in the air, the 
stars are their neighbours, their commerce is with the clouds.' 

In the eleventh century, the influential Byzantine theologian, 
philosopher and shady politician, Michael Psellus, described 
demons in these words: 

These animals exist in our own life, which is full of passions, for 
they are present abundantly in the passions, and their dwelling- 
place is that of matter, as is their rank and degree. For this 
reason they are also subject to passions and fettered to them. 

One Richalmus, abbot of Schonthal, around 1270 penned an 
entire treatise on demons, rich in first-hand experience: he sees 
(but only when his eyes are shut) countless malevolent demons, 
like motes of dust, buzzing around his head - and everyone else's. 
Despite successive waves of rationalist, Persian, Jewish, Christian 
and Muslim world views, despite revolutionary social, political 

* 'Science' means 'knowledge' in Latin. A jurisdictional dispute is exposed, even 
if we look no further. 


The Demon-Haunted World 

and philosophical ferment, the existence, much of the character, 
and even the name of demons remained unchanged from Hesiod 
to the Crusades. 

Demons, the 'powers of the air', come down from the skies and 
have unlawful sexual congress with women. Augustine believed 
that witches were the offspring of these forbidden unions. In the 
Middle Ages, as in classical antiquity, nearly everyone believed 
such stories. The demons were also called devils, or fallen angels. 
The demonic seducers of women were labelled incubi; of men, 
succubi. There are cases in which nuns reported, in some befud- 
dlement, a striking resemblance between the incubus and the 
priest-confessor, or the bishop, and awoke the next morning, as 
one fifteenth-century chronicler put it, to 'find themselves pol- 
luted just as if they had commingled with a man'. There are 
similar accounts, but in harems not convents, in ancient China. So 
many women reported incubi, argued the Presbyterian religious 
writer Richard Baxter (in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, 
1691), 'that 'tis impudence to deny it'.* 

As they seduced, the incubi and succubi were perceived as a 
weight bearing down on the chest of the dreamer. Mare, despite 
its Latin meaning, is the Old English word for incubus, and 
nightmare meant originally the demon that sits on the chests of 
sleepers, tormenting them with dreams. In Athanasius' Life of St 
Anthony (written around 360) demons are described as coming 
and going at will in locked rooms; 1400 years later, in his work De 
Daemonialitae, the Franciscan scholar Ludovico Sinistrari assures 
us that demons pass through walls. 

The external reality of demons was almost entirely unques- 
tioned from antiquity through late medieval times. Maimonides 
denied their reality, but the overwhelming majority of rabbis 
believed in dybbuks. One of the few cases I can find where it is 
even hinted that demons might be internal, generated in our 

* Likewise, in the same work, 'The raising of storms by witches is attested by so 
many, that I think it needless to recite them.' The theologian Meric Casaubon 
argued - in his 1668 book. Of Credulity and Incredulity, that witches must exist 
because, after all, everyone believes in them. Anything that a large number of 
people believe must be true. 



minds, is when Abba Poemen - one of the desert fathers of the 
early Church - was asked, 

'How do the demons fight against me?' 

'The demons fight against you?' Father Poemen asked in turn. 
'Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us.' 

The medieval attitudes on incubi and succubi were influenced 
by Macrobius' fourth-century Commentary on the Dream of 
Scipio, which went through dozens of editions before the Euro- 
pean Enlightenment. Macrobius described phantoms (phantasma) 
seen 'in the moment between wakefulness and slumber'. The 
dreamer 'imagines' the phantoms as predatory. Macrobius had a 
sceptical side which his medieval readers tended to ignore. 

Obsession with demons began to reach a crescendo when, in his 
famous Bull of 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared, 

It has come to Our ears that members of both sexes do not 
avoid to have intercourse with evil angels, incubi, and 
succubi, and that by their sorceries, and by their incantations, 
charms, and conjurations, they suffocate, extinguish, and 
cause to perish the births of women 

as well as generate numerous other calamities. With this Bull, 
Innocent initiated the systematic accusation, torture and execu- 
tion of countless 'witches' all over Europe. They were guilty of 
what Augustine had described as 'a criminal tampering with the 
unseen world'. Despite the evenhanded 'members of both sexes' 
in the language of the Bull, unsurprisingly it was mainly girls and 
women who were so persecuted. 

Many leading Protestants of the following centuries, their differ- 
ences with the Catholic Church notwithstanding, adopted nearly 
identical views. Even humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and 
Thomas More believed in witches. 'The giving up of witchcraft,' said 
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, 'is in effect the giving up of 
the Bible.' William Blackstone, the celebrated jurist, in his Com- 
mentaries on the Laws of England (1765), asserted: 

To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence of witchcraft 
and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word 


The Demon-Haunted World 

of God in various passages of both the Old and New 

Innocent commended 'Our dear sons Henry Kramer and James 
Sprenger' who 'have been by Letters Apostolic delegated as 
Inquisitors of these heretical [de]pravities'. If 'the abominations 
and enormities in question remain unpunished,' the souls of 
multitudes face eternal damnation. 

The Pope appointed Kramer and Sprenger to write a compre- 
hensive analysis, using the full academic armoury of the late 
fifteenth century. With exhaustive citations of scripture and of 
ancient and modern scholars, they produced the Malleus Malefi- 
carum, the 'Hammer of Witches', aptly described as one of the 
most terrifying documents in human history. Thomas Ady, in A 
Candle in the Dark, condemned it as 'villainous Doctrines & 
Inventions', 'horrible lyes and impossibilities', serving to hide 
'their unparalleled cruelty from the ears of the world'. What the 
Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you're accused of 
witchcraft, you're a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to 
demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of 
the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. 
Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be 
made for impious purposes - jealousy, say, or revenge, or the 
greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own 
private benefit the property of the accused. This technical manual 
for torturers also includes methods of punishment tailored to 
release demons from the victim's body before the process kills 
her. The Malleus in hand, the Pope's encouragement guaranteed, 
Inquisitors began springing up all over Europe. 

It quickly became an expense account scam. All costs of 
investigation, trial and execution were borne by the accused or her 
relatives, down to per diem for the private detectives hired to spy 
on her, wine for her guards, banquets for her judges, the travel 
expenses of a messenger sent to fetch a more experienced torturer 
from another city, and the faggots, tar and hangman's rope. Then 
there was a bonus to the members of the tribunal for each witch 
burned. The convicted witch's remaining property, if any, was 
divided between Church and State. As this legally and morally 



sanctioned mass murder and theft became institutionalized, as a 
vast bureaucracy arose to serve it, attention was turned from poor 
hags and crones to the middle class and well-to-do of both sexes. 

The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the 
harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere 
fantasy. Since each 'witch' was made to implicate others, the 
numbers grew exponentially. These constituted 'frightful proofs 
that the Devil is still alive', as it was later put in America in the 
Salem witch trials. In a credulous age, the most fantastic testi- 
mony was soberly accepted - that tens of thousands of witches had 
gathered for a Sabbath in public squares in France, or that 12,000 
of them darkened the skies as they flew to Newfoundland. The 
Bible had counselled, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' 
Legions of women were burned to death.* And the most horren- 
dous tortures were routinely applied to every defendant, young or 
old, after the instruments of torture were first blessed by the 
priests. Innocent himself died in 1492, following unsuccessful 
attempts to keep him alive by transfusion (which resulted in the 
deaths of three boys) and by suckling at the breast of a nursing 
mother. He was mourned by his mistress and their children. 

In Britain witch-finders, also called 'prickers', were employed, 
receiving a handsome bounty for each girl or woman they turned 
over for execution. They had no incentive to be cautious in their 
accusations. Typically they looked for 'devil's marks' - scars or 
birthmarks or nevi - that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor 
bled. A simple sleight of hand often gave the appearance that the 
pin penetrated deep into the witch's flesh. When no visible marks 
were apparent, 'invisible marks' sufficed. Upon the gallows, one 
mid-seventeenth-century pricker 'confessed he had been the death 
of above 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of 
twenty shillings apiece'.* 

* This mode of execution was adopted by the Holy Inquisition apparently to 
guarantee literal accord with a well-intentioned sentence of canon law (Council 
of Tours, 1163): 'The Church abhors bloodshed.' 

In the murky territory of bounty hunters and paid informers, vile corruption is 
often the rule - worldwide and through all of human history. To take an 
example almost at random, in 1994, for a fee, a group of postal inspectors from 


The Demon-Haunted World 

In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defence witnesses 
were inadmissible. In any case, it was nearly impossible to provide 
compelling alibis for accused witches: the rules of evidence had a 
special character. For example, in more than one case a husband 
attested that his wife was asleep in his arms at the very moment 
she was accused of frolicking with the devil at a witch's Sabbath; 
but the archbishop patiently explained that a demon had taken the 
place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine that their 
powers of perception could exceed Satan's powers of deception. 
The beautiful young women were perforce consigned to the 

There were strong erotic and misogynistic elements, as might be 
expected in a sexually repressed, male-dominated society with 
inquisitors drawn from the class of nominally celibate priests. The 
trials paid close attention to the quality and quantity of orgasm in 
the supposed copulations of defendants with demons or the Devil 
(although Augustine had been certain 'we cannot call the Devil a 
fornicator'), and to the nature of the Devil's 'member' (cold, by 
all reports). 'Devil's marks' were found 'generally on the breasts 
or private parts' according to Ludovico Sinistrari's 1700 book. As 
a result pubic hair was shaved, and the genitalia were carefully 
inspected by the exclusively male inquisitors. In the immolation of 
the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the 
Hangman of Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view 'all 
the secrets which can or should be in a woman'. 

The chronicle of those who were consumed by fire in the single 
German city of Wurzburg in the single year 1598 penetrates the 
statistics and lets us confront a little of the human reality: 

The steward of the senate, named Gering; old Mrs Kanzler; 
the tailor's fat wife; the woman cook of Mr Mengerdorf; a 
stranger; a strange woman; Baunach, a senator, the fattest 
citizen in Wurtzburg; the old smith of the court; an old 
woman; a little girl, nine or ten years old; a younger girl, her 
little sister; the mother of the two little aforementioned girls; 

Cleveland, USA, agreed to go underground and ferret out wrongdoers; they 
then contrived criminal cases against 32 innocent postal workers. 



Liebler's daughter; Goebel's child, the most beautiful girl in 
Wurtzburg; a student who knew many languages; two boys 
from the Minster, each twelve years old; Stepper's little 
daughter; the woman who kept the bridge gate; an old 
woman; the little son of the town council bailiff; the wife of 
Knertz, the butcher; the infant daughter of Dr Schultz; a 
blind girl; Schwartz, canon at Hach . . . 

On and on it goes. Some were given special humane attention: 
'The little daughter of Valkenberger was privately executed and 
burned.' There were twenty-eight public immolations, each with 
four to six victims on average, in that small city in a single year. 
This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Europe. 
No one knows how many were killed altogether - perhaps 
hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Those responsible for 
prosecuting, torturing, judging, burning and justifying were self- 
less. Just ask them. 

They could not be mistaken. The confessions of witchcraft 
could not be based on hallucinations, say, or attempts to satisfy 
the inquisitors and stop the torture. In such a case, explained the 
witch judge Pierre de Lancre (in his 1612 book, Description of the 
Inconstancy of Evil Angels), the Catholic Church would be 
committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raise 
such possibilities are thus attacking the Church and ipso facto 
committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished 
and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and tortur- 
ers were doing God's work. They were saving souls. They were 
foiling demons. 

Witchcraft of course was not the only offence that merited 
torture and burning at the stake. Heresy was a still more serious 
crime, and both Catholics and Protestants punished it ruthlessly. 
In the sixteenth century the scholar William Tyndale had the 
temerity to contemplate translating the New Testament into 
English. But if people could actually read the Bible in their own 
language instead of arcane Latin, they could form their own, 
independent religious views. They might conceive of their own 
private unintermediated line to God. This was a challenge to the 
job security of Roman Catholic priests. When Tyndale tried to 


The Demon-Haunted World 

publish his translation, he was hounded and pursued all over 
Europe. Eventually he was captured, garrotted, and then, for 
good measure, burned at the stake. His copies of the New 
Testament (which a century later became the basis of the exquisite 
King James translation) were then hunted down house-to-house 
by armed posses - Christians piously defending Christianity by 
preventing other Christians from knowing the words of Christ. 
Such a cast of mind, such a climate of absolute confidence that 
knowledge should be rewarded by torture and death were unlikely 
to help those accused of witchcraft. 

Burning witches is a feature of Western civilization that has, 
with occasional political exceptions, declined since the six- 
teenth century. In the last judicial execution of witches in 
England, a woman and her nine-year-old daughter were 
hanged. Their crime was raising a rain storm by taking their 
stockings off. In our time, witches and djinns are found as 
regular fare in children's entertainment, exorcism of demons is 
still practised by the Roman Catholic and other Churches, and 
the proponents of one cult still denounce as sorcery the cultic 
practices of another. We still use the word 'pandemonium' 
(literally, all demons). A crazed and violent person is still said 
to be demonic. (Not until the eighteenth century was mental 
illness no longer generally ascribed to supernatural causes; 
even insomnia had been considered a punishment inflicted by 
demons.) More than half of Americans tell pollsters they 
'believe' in the Devil's existence, and ten per cent have 
communicated with him, as Martin Luther reported he did 
regularly. In a 1992 'spiritual warfare manual' called Prepare 
for War, Rebecca Brown informs us that abortion and sex 
outside of marriage 'will almost always result in demonic 
infestation'; that meditation, yoga and martial arts are designed 
so unsuspecting Christians will be seduced into worshipping 
demons; and that 'rock music didn't "just happen", it was a 
carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself. 
Sometimes 'your loved ones are demonically bound and 
blinded'. Demonology is today still part and parcel of many 
earnest faiths. 

And what is it that demons do? In the Malleus, Kramer and 


Sprenger reveal that 'devils . . . busy themselves by interfering 
with the process of normal copulation and conception, by obtain- 
ing human semen, and themselves transferring it'. Demonic 
artificial insemination in the Middle Ages goes back at least to St 
Thomas Aquinas, who tells us in On the Trinity that 'demons can 
transfer the semen which they have collected and inject it into the 
bodies of others'. His contemporary, St Bonaventura, spells it out 
in a little more detail: succubi 'yield to males and receive their 
semen; by cunning skills, the demons preserve its potency, and 
afterwards, with the permission of God, they become incubi and 
pour it out into female repositories'. The products of these 
demon-mediated unions are also, when they grow up, visited by 
demons. A multi-generational trans-species sexual bond is forged. 
And these creatures, we recall, are well known to fly; indeed they 
inhabit the upper air. 

There is no spaceship in these stories. But most of the central 
elements of the alien abduction account are present, including 
sexually obsessive non-humans who live in the sky, walk through 
walls, communicate telepathically, and perform breeding experi- 
ments on the human species. Unless we believe that demons really 
exist, how can we understand so strange a belief-system, 
embraced by the whole Western world (including those consid- 
ered the wisest among us), reinforced by personal experience in 
every generation, and taught by Church and State? Is there any 
real alternative besides a shared delusion based on common brain 
wiring and chemistry? 

In Genesis we read of angels who couple with 'the daughters of 
men'. The culture myths of ancient Greece and Rome told of gods 
appearing to women as bulls or swans or showers of gold and 
impregnating them. In one early Christian tradition, philosophy 
derived not from human ingenuity but out of demonic pillow talk, 
the fallen angels betraying the secrets of Heaven to their human 
consorts. Accounts with similar elements appear in cultures 
around the world. Parallels to incubi include Arabian djinn, 
Greek satyrs, Hindu bhuts, Samoan hotua poro, Celtic dusii and 
many others. In an epoch of demon hysteria, it was easy enough to 
demonize those we feared or hated. So Merlin was said to have 


The Demon-Haunted World 

been fathered by an incubus. So were Plato, Alexander the Great, 
Augustus and Martin Luther. Occasionally an entire people - for 
example the Huns or the inhabitants of Cyprus - were accused by 
their enemies of having been sired by demons. 

In Talmudic tradition the archetypical succubus was Lilith, 
whom God made from the dust along with Adam. She was 
expelled from Eden for insubordination - not to God, but to 
Adam. Ever since, she spends her nights seducing Adam's 
descendants. In ancient Iranian and many other cultures, noctur- 
nal seminal emissions were believed to be elicited by succubi. St 
Teresa of Avila reported a vivid sexual encounter with an angel - 
an angel of light, not of darkness, she was sure - as did other 
women later sanctified by the Catholic Church. Cagliostro, the 
eighteenth-century magician and con man, let it be understood 
that he, like Jesus of Nazareth, was a product of the union 
'between the children of heaven and earth'. 

In 1645 a Cornish teenager, Anne Jefferies, was found groggy, 
crumpled on the floor. Much later, she recalled being attacked by 
half a dozen little men, carried paralysed to a castle in the air, 
seduced and returned home. She called the little men fairies. (For 
many pious Christians, as for the inquisitors of Joan of Arc, this 
was a distinction without a difference. Fairies were demons, plain 
and simple.) They returned to terrify and torment her. The next 
year she was arrested for witchcraft. Fairies traditionally have 
magical powers and can cause paralysis by the merest touch. The 
ordinary passage of time is slowed in fairyland. Fairies are 
reproductively impaired, so they have sex with humans and carry 
off babies from their cradles, sometimes leaving a fairy substitute, 
a 'changeling'. Now it seems a fair question: if Anne Jefferies had 
grown up in a culture touting aliens rather than fairies, and UFOs 
rather than castles in the air, would her story have been distin- 
guishable in any significant respect from the ones 'abductees' tell? 

In his 1982 book The Terror That Comes in the Night: An 
Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, David 
Hufford describes an executive, university-educated, in his mid- 
thirties, who recalled a summer spent as a teenager in his aunt's 
house. One night, he saw mysterious lights moving in the harbour. 
Afterwards, he fell asleep. From his bed he then witnessed a white, 



glowing figure climbing the stairs. She entered his room, paused, and 
then said - anticlimactically, it seems to me - 'That is the linoleum.' 
Some nights the figure was an old woman; in others, an elephant. 
Sometimes the young man was convinced the entire business was a 
dream; other times he was certain he was awake. He was pressed 
down into his bed, paralysed, unable to move or cry out. His heart 
was pounding. He was short of breath. Similar events transpired on 
many consecutive nights. What is happening here? These events 
took place before alien abductions were widely described. If the 
young man had known about alien abductions, would his old woman 
have had a large head and bigger eyes? 

In several famous passages in The Decline and Fall of the 
Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon described the balance between 
credulity and scepticism in late classical antiquity: 

Credulity performed the office of faith; fanaticism was per- 
mitted to assume the language of inspiration, and the effects 
of accident or contrivance were ascribed to supernatural 
causes . . . 

In modern times [Gibbon is writing in the middle eight- 
eenth century], a latent and even involuntary scepticism 
adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of 
supernatural truths is much less an active consent than a cold 
and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe 
and to respect the invariable order of Nature, our reason, or 
at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain 
the visible action of the Deity. But in the first ages of 
Christianity the situation of mankind was extremely different. 
The most curious, or the most credulous, among the pagans 
were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted 
an actual claim of miraculous powers. The primitive Chris- 
tians perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were 
exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary 
events. They felt, or they fancied, that on every side they 
were incessantly assaulted by daemons, comforted by visions, 
instructed by prophecy, and surprisingly delivered from dan- 
ger, sickness, and from death itself, by the supplications of 
the church . . . 


The Demon-Haunted World 

It was their firm persuasion that the air which they 
breathed was peopled with invisible enemies; with innumer- 
able daemons, who watched every occasion, and assumed 
every form, to terrify, and above all to tempt, their 
unguarded virtue. The imagination, and even the senses, 
were deceived by the illusions of distempered fanaticism; and 
the hermit, whose midnight prayer was oppressed by involun- 
tary slumber, might easily confound the phantoms of horror 
or delight which had occupied his sleeping and his waking 
dreams . . . 

[T]he practice of superstition is so congenial to the multi- 
tude that, if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the 
loss of their pleasing vision. Their love of the marvellous and 
supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and 
their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears 
beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal 
causes which favoured the establishment of Polytheism. So 
urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall 
of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded 
by the introduction of some other mode of superstition . . . 

Put aside Gibbon's social snobbery: the devil tormented the upper 
classes too, and even a king of England - James I, the first Stuart 
monarch - wrote a credulous and superstitious book on demons 
(Daemonologie, 1597). He was also the patron of the great 
translation of the Bible into English that still bears his name. It 
was King James's opinion that tobacco is the 'devil's weed', and a 
number of witches were exposed through their addiction to this 
drug. But by 1628, James had become a thoroughgoing sceptic - 
mainly because adolescents had been found faking demonic 
possession, in which state they had accused innocent people of 
witchcraft. If we reckon the scepticism that Gibbon says charac- 
terized his time to have declined in ours, and if even a little of the 
rampant gullibility he attributes to late classical times is left over 
in ours, should we not expect something like demons to find a 
niche in the popular culture of the present? 

Of course, as enthusiasts for extraterrestrial visitations are 
quick to remind me, there's another interpretation of these 



historical parallels: aliens, they say, have always been visiting us, 
poking at us, stealing our sperms and eggs, impregnating us. In 
earlier times we recognized them as gods, demons, fairies, or 
spirits; only now do we understand that it's aliens who've been 
diddling us all these millennia. Jacques Vallee has made such 
arguments. But then why are there virtually no reports of flying 
saucers prior to 1947? Why is it that none of the world's major 
religions uses saucers as icons of the divine? Why no warnings 
about the dangers of high technology then? Why isn't this genetic 
experiment, whatever its objective, completed by now, thousands 
of years or more after its initiation by beings supposedly of vastly 
superior technological attainments? Why are we in such trouble if 
the breeding programme is designed to improve our lot? 

Following this line of argument, we might anticipate present 
adherents of the old beliefs to understand 'aliens' to be fairies, 
gods, or demons. In fact, there are several contemporary sects - 
the 'Raelians', for example - that hold gods or God to come to 
earth in UFOs. Some abductees describe the aliens, however 
repulsive, as 'angels', or 'emissaries of God'. And there are those 
who still think it's demons. 

In Whitley Strieber's Communion, a first-hand account of 'alien 
abduction', the author relates 

Whatever was there seemed so monstrously ugly, so filthy 
and dark and sinister. Of course they were demons. They had 
to be . . . I still remember that thing crouching there, so 
terribly ugly, its arms and legs like the limbs of a great insect, 
its eyes glaring at me. 

Reportedly, Strieber is now open to the possibility that these 
night-time terrors were dreams or hallucinations. 

Articles on UFOs in The Christian News Encyclopedia, a 
fundamentalist compilation, include Unchristian Fanatic Obses- 
sion', and 'Scientist Believes UFOs Work of Devil'. The Spiritual 
Counterfeits Project of Berkeley, California, teaches that UFOs 
are of demonic origin; the Aquarian Church of Universal Service 
of McMinnville, Oregon, that all aliens are hostile. A 1993 
newsletter of 'Cosmic Awareness Communications' informs us 


The Demon-Haunted World 

that UFO occupants think of humans as laboratory animals, wish 
us to worship them, but tend to be deterred by the Lord's Prayer. 
Some abductees have been cast out of their evangelical religious 
congregations; their stories sound too close to satanism. A 1980 
fundamentalist tract, The Cult Explosion, by Dave Hunt, reveals 

UFOs . . . are clearly not physical and seem to be demonic 
manifestations from another dimension calculated to alter 
man's way of thinking . . . [T]he alleged UFO entities that 
have presumably communicated psychically with humans 
have always preached the same four lies that the serpent 
introduced to Eve . . . [T]hese beings are demons and they 
are preparing for the Antichrist. 

A number of sects hold UFOs and alien abductions to be 
premonitions of 'end-times'. 

If UFOs come from another planet or another dimension, were 
they sent by the same God who has been revealed to us in any of 
the major religions? Nothing in the UFO phenomena, the funda- 
mentalist complaint goes, requires belief in the one, true God, 
while much in it contradicts the God portrayed in the Bible and 
Christian tradition. The New Age: A Christian Critique by Ralph 
Rath (1990) discusses UFOs, typically for such literature, with 
extreme credulity. It serves their purpose to accept UFOs as real 
and revile them as instruments of Satan and the Antichrist, rather 
than to use the blade of scientific scepticism. That tool, once 
honed, might accomplish more than just a limited heresiotomy. 

The Christian fundamentalist author Hal Lindsey, in his 1994 
religious best-seller Planet Earth - 2000 AD, writes, 

I have become thoroughly convinced that UFOs are real . . . 
They are operated by alien beings of great intelligence and 
power ... I believe these beings are not only extraterrestrial 
but supernatural in origin. To be blunt, I think they are 
demons . . . part of a Satanic plot. 

And what is the evidence for this conclusion? Chiefly, it is the 



eleventh and twelfth verses of Luke, Chapter 21, in which Jesus 
talks about 'great signs from Heaven' - nothing like a UFO is 
described - in the last days. Typically, Lindsey ignores verse 32 in 
which Jesus makes it very clear he is talking about events in the 
first, not the twentieth, century. 

There is also a Christian tradition according to which 
extraterrestrial life cannot exist. In Christian News for 23 May 
1994, for example, W. Gary Crampton, Doctor of Theology, tells 

The Bible, either explicitly or implicitly, speaks to every area 
of life; it never leaves us without an answer. The Bible 
nowhere explicitly affirms or negates intelligent extraterres- 
trial life. Implicitly, however, Scripture does deny the exist- 
ence of such beings, thus also negating the possibility of flying 
saucers . . . Scripture views earth as the center of the uni- 
verse . . . According to Peter, a 'planet hopping' Savior is out 
of the question. Here is an answer to intelligent life on other 
planets. If there were such, who would redeem them? 
Certainly not Christ . . . Experiences which are out of line 
with the teachings of Scripture must always be renounced as 
fallacious. The Bible has a monopoly on the truth. 

But many other Christian sects - Roman Catholics, for example - 
are completely open-minded, with no a priori objections to and no 
insistence on the reality of aliens and UFOs. 

In the early 1960s, I argued that the UFO stories were crafted 
chiefly to satisfy religious longings. At a time when science has 
complicated uncritical adherence to the old-time religions, an 
alternative is proffered to the God hypothesis: dressed in scientific 
jargon, their immense powers 'explained' by superficially scien- 
tific terminology, the gods and demons of old come down from 
heaven to haunt us, to offer prophetic visions, and to tantalize us 
with visions of a more hopeful future: a space-age mystery religion 

The folklorist Thomas E. Bullard wrote in 1989 that 

abduction reports sound like rewrites of older supernatural 


The Demon-Haunted World 

encounter traditions with aliens serving the functional roles of 
divine beings. 

He concludes: 

Science may have evicted ghosts and witches from our beliefs, 
but it just as quickly filled the vacancy with aliens having the 
same functions. Only the extraterrestrial outer trappings are 
new. All the fear and the psychological dramas for dealing 
with it seem simply to have found their way home again, 
where it is business as usual in the legend realm where things 
go bump in the night. 

Is it possible that people in all times and places occasionally 
experience vivid, realistic hallucinations, often with sexual con- 
tent, about abduction by strange, telepathic, aerial creatures who 
ooze through walls, with the details filled in by the prevailing 
cultural idioms, sucked out of the Zeitgeist? Others, who have not 
personally had the experience, find it stirring and in a way 
familiar. They pass the story on. Soon it takes on a life of its own, 
inspires others trying to understand their own visions and halluci- 
nations, and enters the realm of folklore, myth and legend. The 
connection between the content of spontaneous temporal lobe 
hallucinations and the alien abduction paradigm is consistent with 
such a hypothesis. 

Perhaps when everyone knows that gods come down to Earth, 
we hallucinate gods; when all of us are familiar with demons, it's 
incubi and succubi; when fairies are widely accepted, we see 
fairies; in an age of spiritualism, we encounter spirits; and when 
the old myths fade and we begin thinking that extraterrestrial 
beings are plausible, then that's where our hypnogogic imagery 

Snatches of song or foreign languages, images, events that we 
witnessed, stories that we overheard in childhood can be accu- 
rately recalled decades later without any conscious memory of 
how they got into our heads. '[I]n violent fevers, men, all 
ignorance, have talked in ancient tongues,' says Herman Melville 
in Moby Dick; 'and . . . when the mystery is probed, it turns out 



always that in their wholly forgotten childhood those ancient 
tongues had been really spoken in their hearing.' In our everyday 
life, we effortlessly and unconsciously incorporate cultural norms 
and make them our own. 

A similar inhaling of motifs is present in schizophrenic 'com- 
mand hallucinations'. Here people feel they are being told what to 
do by an imposing or mythic figure. They are ordered to assassi- 
nate a political leader or a folk hero, or defeat the British 
invaders, or harm themselves, because it is the wish of God, or 
Jesus, or the Devil, or demons, or angels, or - lately - aliens. The 
schizophrenic is transfixed by a clear and powerful command from 
a voice that no one else can hear, and that the subject must 
somehow identify. Who would issue such a command? Who could 
speak inside our heads? The culture in which we've been raised 
offers up an answer. 

Think of the power of repetitive imagery in advertising, 
especially to suggestible viewers and readers. It can make us 
believe almost anything - even that smoking cigarettes is cool. 
In our time, putative aliens are the subject of innumerable 
science fiction stories, novels, TV dramas and films. UFOs are 
a regular feature of the weekly tabloids devoted to falsification 
and mystification. One of the highest-grossing motion pictures 
of all time is about aliens very like those described by abduct- 
ees. Alien abduction accounts were comparatively rare until 
1975, when a credulous television dramatization of the Hill case 
was aired; another leap into public prominence occurred after 
1987, when Strieber's purported first-hand account with a 
haunting cover painting of a large-eyed 'alien' became a 
best-seller. In contrast, we hear very little lately about incubi, 
elves and fairies. Where have they all gone? 

Far from being global, such alien abduction stories are 
disappointingly local. The vast majority emanate from North 
America. They hardly transcend American culture. In other 
countries, bird-headed, insect-headed, reptilian, robot, and 
blond and blue-eyed aliens are reported (the last, predictably, 
from northern Europe). Each group of aliens is said to behave 
differently. Clearly cultural factors are playing an important 

The Demon-Haunted World 

Long before the terms 'flying saucer' or 'UFOs' were invented, 
science fiction was replete with 'little green men' and 'bug-eyed 
monsters'. Somehow small hairless beings with big heads (and 
eyes) have been our staple aliens for a long time. You could see 
them routinely in the science fiction pulp magazines of the 
twenties and thirties (and, for example, in an illustration of a 
Martian sending radio messages to Earth in the December 1937 
issue of the magazine Short Wave and Television). It goes back 
perhaps to our remote descendants as depicted by the British 
science fiction pioneer, H.G. Wells. Wells argued that humans 
evolved from smaller-brained but hairier primates with an athleti- 
cism far exceeding that of Victorian academics; extrapolating this 
trend into the far future, he suggested that our descendants should 
be nearly hairless, with immense heads, although barely able to 
walk around on their own. Advanced beings from other worlds 
might be similarly endowed. 

The typical modern extraterrestrial reported in America in the 
eighties and early nineties is small, with disproportionately large 
head and eyes, undeveloped facial features, no visible eyebrows 
or genitals, and smooth grey skin. It looks to me eerily like a 
foetus in roughly the twelfth week of pregnancy, or a starving 
child. Why so many of us might be obsessing on foetuses or 
malnourished children, and imagining them attacking and sexually 
manipulating us, is an interesting question. 

In recent years in America, aliens different from the short grey 
motif have been on the rise. One psychotherapist, Richard Boylan 
of Sacramento, says: 

You've got three-and-a-half-foot to four-foot types; you've 
got five- to six-foot types; you've got seven- to eight-foot 
types; you've got three-, four-, and five-finger types, pads on 
the ends of fingers or suction cups; you've got webbed or 
non-webbed fingers; you've got large almond-shape eyes 
slanted upward, outward, or horizontally; in some cases large 
ovoid eyes without the almond slant; you've got extraterres- 
trials with slit pupils; you've got other different body types - 
the so-called Praying Mantis type, the reptoid types . . . 
These are the ones that I keep getting recurrently. There are 



a few exotic and single case reports that I tend to be a little 
cautious about until I get a lot more corroborative. 

Despite this apparent variety of extraterrestrials, the UFO abduc- 
tion syndrome portrays, it seems to me, a banal Universe. The 
form of the supposed aliens is marked by the failure of the 
imagination and a preoccupation with human concerns. Not a 
single being presented in all these accounts is as astonishing as a 
cockatoo would be if you had never before beheld a bird. Any 
protozoology or bacteriology or mycology textbook is filled with 
wonders that far outshine the most exotic descriptions of the alien 
abductionists. The believers take the common elements in their 
stories as tokens of verisimilitude, rather than as evidence that 
they have contrived their stories out of a shared culture and 



On the Distinction between 
True and False Visions 

A credulous mind . . . finds most delight in believing 
strange things, and the stranger they are the easier they pass 
with him; but never regards those that are plain and 
feasible, for every man can believe such. 

Samuel Butler, Characters (1667-9) 

For just an instant in the darkened room I sense an apparition - 
could it be a ghost? Or there's a flicker of motion; I see it out 
of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head there's nothing 
there. Is that a telephone ringing, or is it just my 'imagination'? In 
astonishment, I seem to be smelling the salt air of the Coney 
Island summer seashore of my childhood. I turn a corner in the 
foreign city I'm visiting for the first time, and before me is a street 
so familiar I feel I've known it all my life. 

In these commonplace experiences, we're generally unsure 
what to do next. Were my eyes (or ears, or nose, or memory) 
playing 'tricks' on me? Or did I really and truly witness something 
out of the ordinary course of Nature? Shall I keep quiet about it, 
or shall I tell? 

The answer depends very much on my environment, friends, 
loved ones and culture. In an obsessively rigid, practically ori- 
ented society, perhaps I would be cautious about admitting to 
such experiences. They might mark me as flighty, unsound, 
unreliable. But in a society that readily believes in ghosts, say, or 



'apporting', accounts of such experiences might gain approval, 
even prestige. In the former, I would be sorely tempted to 
suppress the thing altogether; in the latter, maybe even to 
exaggerate or elaborate just a little to make it even more 
miraculous than it seemed. 

Charles Dickens, who lived in a flourishing rational culture in 
which, however, spiritualism was also thriving, described the 
dilemma in these words (from his short story, 'To Be Taken with a 
Grain of Salt'): 

I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even 
among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to 
imparting their own psychological experiences when those 
have been of a strange sort. Almost all men are afraid that 
what they could relate in such wise would find no parallel or 
response in a listener's internal life, and might be suspected 
or laughed at. A truthful traveller who should have seen some 
extraordinary creature in the likeness of a sea-serpent, would 
have no fear of mentioning it; but the same traveller having 
had some singular presentiment, impulse, vagary of thought, 
vision (so-called), dream, or other remarkable mental 
impression, would hesitate considerably before he would own 
to it. To his reticence I attribute much of the obscurity in 
which such subjects are involved. 

In our time, there is still much dismissive chortling and ridicule. 
But the reticence and obscurity is more readily overcome, for 
example, in a 'supportive' setting provided by a therapist or 
hypnotist. Unfortunately - and, for some people, unbelievably - 
the distinction between imagination and memory is often blurred. 

Some 'abductees' say they remember the experience without 
hypnosis; many do not. But hypnosis is an unreliable way to 
refresh memory. It often elicits imagination, fantasy and play as 
well as true recollections, with neither patient nor therapist able to 
distinguish the one from the other. Hypnosis seems to involve, in 
a central way, a state of heightened suggestibility. Courts have 
banned its use as evidence or even as a tool of criminal investiga- 
tion. The American Medical Association calls memories surfacing 


On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

under hypnosis less reliable than those recalled without it. A 
standard medical school text (Harold I. Kaplan, Comprehensive 
Textbook of Psychiatry, 1989) warns of 'a high likelihood that the 
beliefs of the hypnotist will be communicated to the patient and 
incorporated into what the patient believes to be memories, often 
with strong conviction'. So the fact that, when hypnotized, people 
sometimes relate alien abduction stories carries little weight. 
There's a danger that subjects are - at least on some matters - so 
eager to please the hypnotist that they sometimes respond to 
subtle cues of which even the hypnotist is unaware. 

In a study by Alvin Lawson of California State University, Long 
Beach, eight subjects, pre-screened to eliminate UFO buffs, were 
hypnotized by a physician and informed that they had been 
abducted, brought to a spaceship and examined. With no further 
prompting, they were asked to describe the experience. Their 
accounts, most of which were easily elicited, were almost indistin- 
guishable from the accounts that self-described abductees present. 
True, Lawson had cued his subjects briefly and directly; but in 
many cases the therapists who routinely deal with alien abductions 
cue their subjects, some in great detail, others more subtly and 

The psychiatrist George Ganaway (as related by Lawrence 
Wright) once proposed to a highly suggestible patient under 
hypnosis that five hours were missing from her memory of a 
certain day. When he mentioned a bright light overhead, she 
promptly told him about UFOs and aliens. When he insisted she 
had been experimented on, a detailed abduction story emerged. 
But when she came out of the trance, and examined a video of the 
session, she recognized that something like a dream had been 
caught surfacing. Over the next year, though, she repeatedly 
flashed back to the dream material. 

The University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus 
has found that unhypnotized subjects can easily be made to 
believe they saw something they didn't. In a typical experiment, 
subjects will view a film of a car accident. In the course of being 
questioned about what they saw, they're casually given false 
information. For example, a stop sign is off-handedly referred to, 
although there wasn't one in the film. Many subjects then dutifully 



recall seeing a stop sign. When the deception is revealed, some 
vehemently protest, stressing how vividly they remember the sign. 
The greater the time lag between viewing the film and being given 
the false information, the more people allow their memories to be 
tampered with. Loftus argues that 'memories of an event more 
closely resemble a story undergoing constant revision than a 
packet of pristine information'. 

There are many other examples, some - a spurious memory of 
being lost as a child in a shopping mall, for instance - of greater 
emotional impact. Once the key idea is suggested, the patient 
often plausibly fleshes out the supporting details. Lucid but wholly 
false recollections can easily be induced by a few cues and 
questions, especially in the therapeutic setting. Memory can be 
contaminated. False memories can be implanted even in minds 
that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical. 

Stephen Ceci of Cornell University, Loftus and their colleagues 
have found, unsurprisingly, that preschoolers are exceptionally 
vulnerable to suggestion. The child who, when first asked, cor- 
rectly denies having caught his hand in a mousetrap later remem- 
bers the event in vivid, self-generated detail. When more directly 
told about 'some things that happened to you when you were 
little', over time they easily enough assent to the implanted 
memories. Professionals watching videotapes of the children can 
do no better than chance in distinguishing false memories from 
true ones. Is there any reason to think that adults are wholly 
immune to the fallibilities exhibited by children? 

President Ronald Reagan, who spent World War Two in 
Hollywood, vividly described his own role in liberating Nazi 
concentration camp victims. Living in the film world, he 
apparently confused a movie he had seen with a reality he had 
not. On many occasions in his Presidential campaigns, Mr 
Reagan told an epic story of World War Two courage and 
sacrifice, an inspiration for all of us. Only it never happened; it 
was the plot of the movie A Wing and a Prayer - that made 
quite an impression on me, too, when I saw it at age 9. Many 
other instances of this sort can be found in Reagan's public 
statements. It is not hard to imagine serious public dangers 
emerging out of instances in which political, military, scientific 

On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

or religious leaders are unable to distinguish fact from vivid 

In preparing for courtroom testimony, witnesses are coached by 
their lawyers. Often, they are made to repeat the story over and 
over again, until they get it 'right'. Then, on the stand what they 
remember is the story they've been telling in the lawyer's office. 
The nuances have been shaded. Or it may no longer correspond, 
even in its major features, to what really happened. Conveniently, 
the witnesses may have forgotten that their memories were 

These facts are relevant in evaluating the societal effects of 
advertising and of national propaganda. But here they suggest 
that on alien abduction matters - where interviews typically take 
place years after the alleged event - therapists must be very 
careful that they do not accidentally implant or select the stories 
they elicit. 

Perhaps what we actually remember is a set of memory frag- 
ments stitched on to a fabric of our own devising. If we sew 
cleverly enough, we have made ourselves a memorable story easy 
to recall. Fragments by themselves, unencumbered by association, 
are harder to retrieve. The situation is rather like the method of 
science itself where many isolated data points can be remem- 
bered, summarized and explained in the framework of a theory. 
We then much more easily recall the theory and not the data. 

In science the theories are always being reassessed and con- 
fronted with new facts; if the facts are seriously discordant - 
beyond the error bars - the theory may have to be revised. But in 
everyday life it is very rare that we are confronted with new facts 
about events of long ago. Our memories are almost never 
challenged. They can, instead, be frozen in place, no matter how 
flawed they are, or become a work in continual artistic revision. 

More than gods and demons, the best-attested apparitions are 
those of saints, especially the Virgin Mary in Western Europe 
from late medieval to modern times. While alien abduction stories 
have much more the flavour of profane, demonic apparitions, 
insight into the UFO myth can also be gained from visions 
described as sacred. Perhaps best known are those of Jeanne 



d'Arc in France, St Bridget in Sweden, and Girolamo Savonarola 
in Italy. But more appropriate for our purpose are the apparitions 
seen by shepherds and peasants and children. In a world plagued 
by uncertainty and horror, these people longed for contact with 
the divine. A detailed record of such events in Castile and 
Catalonia is provided by William A. Christian Jr in his book 
Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (1981). 

In a typical case, a rural woman or child reports encountering 
a girl or an oddly tiny woman - perhaps three or four feet tall - 
who reveals herself to be the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. 
She requests the awestruck witness to go to the village fathers 
or the local Church authorities and order them to say prayers 
for the dead, or obey the Commandments, or build a shrine at 
this very spot in the countryside. If they do not comply, dire 
penalties are threatened, perhaps the plague. Alternatively, in 
plague-infested times, Mary promises to cure the disease but 
only if her request is satisfied. 

The witness tries to do as she is told. But when she informs her 
father or husband or priest, she is ordered to repeat the story to no 
one; it is mere female foolishness or frivolity or demonic halluci- 
nation. So she keeps quiet. Days later she is confronted again by 
Mary, a little put out that her request has not been honoured. 

'They will not believe me,' the witness complains. 'Give me a 
sign.' Evidence is needed. 

So Mary - who seems to have had no foreknowledge that 
evidence would have to be provided - provides a sign. The 
villagers and priests are promptly convinced. The shrine is built. 
Miraculous cures occur in its vicinity. Pilgrims come from far and 
wide. Priests are busy. The economy of the region booms. The 
original witness is appointed keeper of the sacred shrine. 

In most of the cases we know of, there was a commission of 
inquiry, comprising leaders civic and ecclesiastic, who attested to 
the genuineness of the apparition, despite initial, almost exclu- 
sively male, scepticism. But the standards of evidence were not 
generally high. In one case the testimony of a delirious eight-year- 
old boy, taken two days before his death from plague, was soberly 
accepted. Some of these commissions deliberated decades or even 
a century after the event. 


On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

In On the Distinction between True and False Visions, an expert 
on the subject, Jean Gerson, in around 1400, summarized the 
criteria for recognizing a credible witness of an apparition: one 
was the willingness to accept advice from the political and 
religious hierarchy. Thus anyone seeing a vision disturbing to 
those in power was ipso facto an unreliable witness, and saints and 
virgins could be made to say whatever the authorities wanted to 

The 'signs' allegedly provided by Mary, the evidence offered 
and considered compelling, included an ordinary candle, a piece 
of silk, and a magnetic stone; a piece of coloured tile; footprints; 
the witness's unusually quick gathering of thistles; a simple 
wooden cross inserted in the ground; welts and wounds on the 
witness; and a variety of contortions - a 12-year-old with her hand 
held funny, or legs folded back, or a closed mouth making her 
temporarily mute - that are 'cured' the moment her story is 

In some cases accounts may have been compared and coordi- 
nated before testimony was given. For example, multiple wit- 
nesses in a small town might tell of a tall, glowing woman dressed 
all in white carrying an infant son and surrounded by a radiance 
that lit up the street the previous night. But in other cases, people 
standing directly beside the witness could see nothing, as in this 
report of a 1617 apparition from Castile: 

'Aye, Bartolome, the lady who came to me these past days is 
coming through the meadow, and she is kneeling and embrac- 
ing the cross there - look at her, look at her!' The youth 
though he looked as hard as he could saw nothing except 
some small birds flying around above the cross. 

Possible motives for inventing and accepting such stories are 
not hard to find: jobs for priests, notaries, carpenters and 
merchants, and other boosts to the original economy in a time 
of depression; augmented social status of the witness and her 
family; prayers once again offered for relatives buried in 
graveyards later abandoned because of plague, drought and 
war; rousing public spirit against enemies, especially Moors; 



improving civility and obedience to canon law; and confirming 
the faith of the pious. The fervour of pilgrims in such shrines 
was impressive; it was not uncommon for rock scrapings or dirt 
from the shrine to be mixed with water and drunk as medicine. 
But I'm not suggesting that most witnesses made the whole 
business up. Something else was going on. 

Almost all the urgent requests by Mary were remarkable for 
their prosaicness - for example, in this 1483 apparition from 

I charge you by your soul to charge the souls of the men of the 
parishes of El Torn, Milleras, El Salent, and Sant Miquel de 
Campmaior to charge the souls of the priests to ask the 
people to pay up the tithes and all the duties of the church 
and restore other things that they hold covertly or openly 
which are not theirs to their rightful owners within thirty 
days, for it will be necessary, and observe well the holy 

And second that they should cease and desist from blas- 
pheming and they should pay the usual charitas mandated by 
their dead ancestors. 

Often the apparition is seen just after the witness awakes. 
Francisca la Brava testified in 1523 that she had gotten out of bed 
'without knowing if she was in control of her senses', although in 
later testimony she claimed to be fully awake. (This was in 
response to a question which allowed a gradation of possibilities: 
fully awake, dozing, in a trance, asleep.) Sometimes details are 
wholly missing, such as what the accompanying angels looked 
like; or Mary is described as both tall and short, both mother and 
child, characteristics that unmistakably suggest themselves as 
dream material. In the Dialogue on Miracles written around 1223 
by Caesarius of Heisterbach, clerical visions of the Virgin Mary 
often occurred during matins, which took place at the sleepy 
midnight hour. 

It is natural to suspect that many, perhaps all, of these 
apparitions were a species of dream, waking or sleeping, com- 
pounded by hoaxes (and by forgeries; there was a thriving 


On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

business in contrived miracles: religious paintings and statues dug 
up by accident or divine command). The matter was addressed in 
the Siete Partidas, the codex of canon and civil law compiled under 
the direction of Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile, around 1248. In 
it we can read the following: 

Some men fraudulently discover or build altars in fields or in 
towns, saying that there are relics of certain saints in those 
places and pretending that they perform miracles, and, for 
this reason, people from many places are induced to go there 
as on a pilgrimage, in order to take something away from 
them; and there are others who influenced by dreams or 
empty phantoms which appear to them, erect altars and 
pretend to discover them in the above named localities. 

In listing the reasons for erroneous beliefs, Alfonso lays out a 
continuum from sect, opinion, fantasy and dream to hallucination. 
A kind of fantasy named antoianca is defined as follows: 

Antoianca is something that stops before the eyes and then 
disappears, as one sees or hears it in a trance, and so is 
without substance. 

A 1517 papal bull distinguishes between apparitions that appear 
'in dreams or divinely'. Clearly, the secular and ecclesiastical 
authorities, even in times of extreme credulity, were alert to the 
possibilities of hoax and delusion. 

Nevertheless, in most of medieval Europe, such apparitions 
were greeted warmly by the Roman Catholic clergy, especially 
because the Marian admonitions were so congenial to the 
priesthood. A pathetic few 'signs' of evidence - a stone or a 
footprint and never anything unfakeable - sufficed. But begin- 
ning in the fifteenth century, around the time of the Protestant 
Reformation, the attitude of the Church changed. Those who 
reported an independent channel to Heaven were outflanking 
the Church's chain of command up to God. Moreover, a few of 
the apparitions - Jeanne d'Arc's, for example - had awkward 
political or moral implications. The perils represented by 



Jeanne d'Arc's visions were described by her inquisitors in 1431 
in these words: 

The great danger was shown to her that comes of someone so 
presumptuous to believe they have such apparitions and 
revelations, and therefore lie about matters concerning God, 
giving out false prophecies and divinations not known from 
God, but invented. From which could follow the seduction of 
peoples, the inception of new sects, and many other impieties 
that subvert the Church and Catholics. 

Both Jeanne dArc and Girolamo Savonarola were burned at the 
stake for their visions. 

In 1516 the Fifth Lateran Council reserved to 'the Apostolic 
seat' the right to examine the authenticity of apparitions. For poor 
peasants whose visions had no political content, the punishments 
fell short of the ultimate severity. The Marian apparition seen by 
Francisca la Brava, a young mother, was described by Licenciado 
Mariana, the Lord Inquisitor, as 'to the detriment of our holy 
Catholic faith and the diminution of its authority'. Her apparition 
'was all vanity and frivolity'. 'By rights we could have treated her 
more rigorously', the Inquisitor continued. 

But in deference to certain just reasons that move us to 
mitigate the rigour of the sentences we decree as a punish- 
ment to Francisca la Brava and an example to others not to 
attempt similar things that we condemn her to be put on an 
ass and given one hundred lashes in public through the 
accustomed streets of Belmonte naked from the waist up, and 
the same number in the town of El Quintanar in the same 
manner. And that from now on she not say or affirm in public 
or secretly by word or insinuation the things she said in her 
confessions or else she will be prosecuted as an impenitent 
and one who does not believe in or agree with what is in our 
holy Catholic faith. 

Despite the penalties, it is striking how often the witness stuck to 
her guns and, ignoring the encouragements offered her to confess 


On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

that she was lying or dreaming or confused, insisted that she really 
and truly had seen the vision. 

In a time when nearly everyone was illiterate, before news- 
papers, radio and television, how could the religious and icono- 
graphic detail of these apparitions have been so similar? William 
Christian believes there is a ready answer in cathedral dramaturgy 
(especially Christmas plays), in itinerant preachers and pilgrims, 
and in church sermons. Legends about nearby shrines spread 
quickly. People sometimes came from a hundred miles or more so 
that, say, their sick child could be cured by a pebble that had been 
trodden on by the Mother of God. Legends influenced apparitions 
and vice versa. In a time haunted by drought, plague and war, 
with no social or medical services available to the average person, 
with public literacy and the scientific method unheard of, sceptical 
thinking was rare. 

Why are the admonitions so prosaic? Why is a vision of so 
illustrious a personage as the Mother of God necessary so, in a 
tiny county populated by a few thousand souls, a shrine will be 
repaired or the populace will refrain from cursing? Why not 
important and prophetic messages whose significance could be 
recognized in later years as something that could have emanated 
only from God or the saints? Wouldn't this have greatly enhanced 
the Catholic cause in its mortal struggle with Protestantism and 
the Enlightenment? But we have no apparitions cautioning the 
Church against, say, accepting the delusion of an Earth-centred 
Universe, or warning it of complicity with Nazi Germany - two 
matters of considerable moral as well as historical import, on 
which Pope John Paul II, to his credit, has admitted that the 
Church has erred. 

Not a single saint criticized the practice of torturing and 
burning 'witches' and heretics. Why not? Were they unaware of 
what was going on? Could they not grasp its evil? And why is 
Mary always ordering the poor peasant to inform the authori- 
ties? Why doesn't she admonish the authorities herself? Or the 
King? Or the Pope? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 
it is true, some of the apparitions have taken on greater import 
- at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where the Virgin was incensed 
that a secular government had replaced a government run by 



the Church, and at Garabandal, Spain, in 1961-5, where the 
end of the world was threatened unless conservative political 
and religious doctrines were adopted forthwith. 

I think I can see many parallels between Marian apparitions and 
alien abductions, even though the witnesses in the former cases 
are not promptly taken to Heaven and don't have their reproduc- 
tive organs meddled with. The beings reported are diminutive, 
most often about two-and-a-half to four feet high. They come 
from the sky. The content of the communication is, despite its 
purported celestial origin, mundane. There seems to be a clear 
connection with sleep and dreams. The witnesses, often females, 
are troubled about speaking out, especially after encountering 
ridicule from males in positions of authority. Nevertheless they 
persist: they really saw such a thing, they insist. Means of 
conveying the stories exist; they are eagerly discussed, permitting 
details to be coordinated even among witnesses who have never 
met one another. Others present at the time and place of the 
apparition see nothing unusual. The purported 'signs' or evidence 
are, without exception, nothing that humans couldn't acquire or 
fabricate on their own. Indeed, Mary seems unsympathetic to the 
need for evidence, and occasionally is willing to cure only those 
who had believed the account of her apparition before she 
supplied 'signs'. And while there are no therapists, per se, the 
society is suffused by a network of influential parish priests and 
their hierarchical superiors who have a vested interest in the 
reality of the visions. 

In our time, there are still apparitions of Mary and other angels, 
but also, as summarized by G. Scott Sparrow, a psychotherapist 
and hypnotist, of Jesus. In I Am With You Always: True Stories of 
Encounters with Jesus (Bantam, 1995), first-hand accounts, some 
moving, some banal, of such encounters are laid out. Oddly, most 
of them are straightforward dreams, acknowledged as such, and 
the ones called visions are said to differ from dreams 'only because 
we experience them while we are awake'. But, for Sparrow, 
judging something 'only a dream' does not compromise its exter- 
nal reality. For Sparrow, any being you dream of, and any 
incident, really exists in the world outside your head. He specifi- 
cally denies that dreams are 'purely subjective'. Evidence doesn't 


On the Distinction between True and False Visions 

enter into it. If you dreamed it, if it felt good, if it elicited wonder, 
why then it really happened. There's not a sceptical bone in 
Sparrow's body. When Jesus tells a troubled woman in an 
'intolerable' marriage to throw the bum out, Sparrow admits that 
this poses problems for 'advocates of a scripturally consistent 
position'. In that case, '[ultimately, perhaps, one could say that 
virtually all presumed guidance is generated from within'. What if 
someone reported a dream in which Jesus counselled, say, abor- 
tion - or vengeance? And if indeed somewhere, somehow we 
must eventually draw the line and conclude that some dreams are 
invented by the dreamer, why not all? 

Why would people invent abduction stories? Why, for that 
matter, would people appear on TV audience participation pro- 
grammes devoted to sexual humiliation of the 'guests' - the 
current rage in America's video wasteland? Discovering that 
you're an alien abductee is at least a break from the routine of 
everyday life. You gain the attention of peers, therapists, maybe 
even the media. There is a sense of discovery, exhilaration, awe. 
What will you remember next? You begin to believe that you may 
be the harbinger or even the instrument of momentous events now 
rolling towards us. And you don't want to disappoint your 
therapist. You crave his or her approval. I think there can very 
well be psychic rewards in becoming an abductee. 

For comparison, consider product tampering cases, which con- 
vey very little of the sense of wonder that surrounds UFOs and 
alien abductions: someone claims to find a hypodermic syringe in 
a popular soft drink can. Understandably, this is upsetting. It's 
reported in newspapers and especially on television news. Soon 
there's a spate, a virtual epidemic of similar reports from all over 
the country. But it's very hard to see how a hypodermic syringe 
could get into a can at the factory, and in none of the cases are 
witnesses present when an intact can is opened and a syringe 
discovered inside. 

Slowly the evidence accumulates that this is a 'copycat' crime. 
People have only been pretending to find syringes in soft drink 
cans. Why would anyone do it? What possible motives could they 
have? Some psychiatrists say that the primary motives are greed 



(they'll sue the manufacturer for damages), a craving for atten- 
tion, and a wish to be portrayed as a victim. Note there are no 
therapists touting the reality of needles in cans and urging their 
patients, subtly or directly, to go public with the news. Also, 
serious penalties are levied for product tampering, and even for 
falsely alleging that products have been tampered with. In con- 
trast, there are therapists who encourage abductees to tell their 
stories to mass audiences, and no legal penalties are exacted for 
falsely claiming you've been abducted by a UFO. Whatever your 
reason for going down this road, how much more satisfying it must 
be to convince others that you've been chosen by higher beings for 
their own enigmatic purpose than that by mere happenstance 
you've found a hypodermic syringe in your cola. 




It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. 
Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead 
of theories to suit facts. 

Sherlock Holmes, 
in Arthur Conan Doyle's 
A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) 

True memories seemed like phantoms, while false memories 
were so convincing that they replaced reality. 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 
Strange Pilgrims (1992) 

John Mack is a Harvard University psychiatrist whom I've 
known for many years. 'Is there anything to this UFO busi- 
ness?' he asked me long ago. 'Not much,' I replied. 'Except of 
course on the psychiatric side.' 

He looked into it, interviewed abductees, and was converted. 
He now accepts the accounts of abductees at face value. Why? 

'I wasn't looking for this,' he says. 'There's nothing in my 
background that prepared me' for the alien abduction story. 'It's 
completely persuasive because of the emotional power of these 
experiences.' In his book, Abductions, Mack explicitly proposes 
the very dangerous doctrine that 'the power or intensity with 
which something is felt' is a guide to whether it's true. 



I can personally attest to the emotional power. But aren't 
powerful emotions a routine component of our dreams? Don't we 
sometimes awake in stark terror? Doesn't Mack, himself the 
author of a book on nightmares, know about the emotional power 
of hallucinations? Some of Mack's patients describe themselves as 
having hallucinated since childhood. Have the hypnotists and 
psychotherapists working with 'abductees' made conscientious 
attempts to steep themselves in the body of knowledge on 
hallucinations and perceptual malfunctions? Why do they believe 
these witnesses but not those who reported, with comparable 
conviction, encounters with gods, demons, saints, angels and 
fairies? And what about those who hear irresistible commands 
from a voice within? Are all deeply felt stories true? 

A scientist of my acquaintance says, 'If the aliens would only 
keep all the folks they abduct, our world would be a little saner.' 
But her judgement is too harsh. It doesn't seem to be a matter of 
sanity. It's something else. The Canadian psychologist Nicholas 
Spanos and his colleagues concluded that there are no obvious 
pathologies in those who report being abducted by UFOs. How- 

intense UFO experiences are more likely to occur in individu- 
als who are disposed to esoteric beliefs in general and alien 
beliefs in particular and who interpret unusual sensory and 
imaginal experiences in terms of the alien hypothesis. Among 
UFO believers, those with stronger propensities toward 
fantasy production were particularly likely to generate such 
experiences. Moreover, such experiences were likely to be 
generated and interpreted as real events rather than imagin- 
ings when they were associated with restricted sensory envi- 
ronments . . . (e.g., experiences that occurred at night and in 
association with sleep). 

What a more critical mind might recognize as a hallucination or a 
dream, a more credulous mind interprets as a glimpse of an 
elusive but profound external reality. 

Some alien abduction accounts may conceivably be disguised 



memories of rape and childhood sexual abuse, with the father, 
stepfather, uncle or mother's boyfriend represented as an alien. 
Surely it's more comforting to believe that an alien abused you 
than that it was done by someone you trusted and loved. 
Therapists who take the alien abduction stories at face value deny 
this, saying they would know if their patients were sexually 
abused. Some estimates from opinion surveys range as high as one 
in four American women and one in six American men have been 
sexually abused in childhood (although these estimates are prob- 
ably too high). It would be astonishing if a significant number of 
patients who present themselves to alien abduction therapists had 
not been so abused, perhaps even a larger proportion than in the 
general population. 

Both sexual abuse therapists and alien abduction therapists 
spend months, sometimes years, encouraging their subjects to 
remember being abused. Their methods are similar, and their 
goals are in a way the same - to recover painful memories, often 
of long ago. In both cases the therapist believes the patient to be 
suffering from trauma attendant to an event so terrible that it is 
repressed. I find it striking that alien abduction therapists find so 
few cases of sexual abuse and vice versa. 

Those who have in fact been subjected to childhood sexual 
abuse or incest are, for very understandable reasons, sensitive 
about anything that seems to minimize or deny their experience. 
They are angry, and they have every right to be. In the US, at 
least one in ten women have been raped, almost two-thirds before 
the age of 18. A recent survey reports that one-sixth of all rape 
victims reported to police are under the age of 12. (And this is the 
category of rape least likely to be reported.) One-fifth of these 
girls were raped by their fathers. They have been betrayed. I want 
to be very clear about this: there are many real cases of ghoulish 
sexual predation by parents, or those acting in the role of parents. 
Compelling physical evidence - photos, for example, or diaries, or 
gonorrhoea or chlamydia in the child - have in some cases come to 
light. Abuse of children has been implicated as a major probable 
cause of social problems. According to one survey, 85 per cent of 
all violent prison inmates were abused in childhood. Two-thirds of 
all teenage mothers were raped or sexually abused as children or 



teenagers. Rape victims are ten times more likely than other 
women to use alcohol and other drugs to excess. The problem is 
real and urgent. Most of these tragic and incontestable cases of 
childhood sexual abuse, however, have been continuously remem- 
bered into adulthood. There is no hidden memory to be retrieved. 

While there is better reporting today than in the past, there 
does seem to be a significant increase in cases of child abuse 
reported each year by hospitals and law enforcement authorities, 
rising in the United States ten-fold (to 1.7 million cases) between 
1967 and 1985. Alcohol and other drugs, as well as economic 
stresses, are pointed to as the 'reasons' adults are more prone to 
abuse children today than in the past. Perhaps increasing publicity 
given to contemporary cases of child abuse emboldens adults to 
remember and focus on the abuse they once suffered. 

A century ago, Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of 
repression, the forgetting of events in order to avoid intense 
psychic pain, as a coping mechanism essential for mental health. It 
seemed to emerge especially in patients diagnosed with 'hysteria', 
the symptoms of which included hallucinations and paralysis. At 
first Freud believed that behind every case of hysteria was a 
repressed instance of childhood sexual abuse. Eventually Freud 
changed his explanation to hysteria being caused by fantasies - not 
all of them unpleasant - of having been sexually abused as a child. 
The burden of guilt was shifted from parent to child. Something 
like this debate rages today. (The reason for Freud's change of 
heart is still being disputed - the explanations ranging from his 
provoking outrage among his Viennese middle-aged male peers, 
to his recognition that he was taking the stories of hysterics 

Instances in which the 'memory' suddenly surfaces, especially 
at the ministrations of a psychotherapist or hypnotist, and 
where the first 'recollections' have a ghost- or dreamlike quality 
are highly questionable. Many such claims of sexual abuse 
appear to be invented. The Emory University psychologist 
Ulric Neisser says: 

There is child abuse, and there are such things as repressed 
memories. But there are also such things as false memories 



and confabulations, and they are not rare at all. Misremem- 
berings are the rule, not the exception. They occur all the 
time. They occur even in cases where the subject is absolutely 
confident - even when the memory is a seemingly unforgetta- 
ble flashbulb, one of those metaphorical mental photographs. 
They are still more likely to occur in cases where suggestion is 
a lively possibility, where memories can be shaped and 
re-shaped to meet the strong interpersonal demands of a 
therapy session. And once a memory has been reconfigured 
in this way, it is very, very hard to change. 

These general principles cannot help us to decide with 
certainty where the truth lies in any individual case or claim. But 
on the average, across a large number of such claims, it is pretty 
obvious where we should place our bets. Misremembering and 
retrospective reworking of the past are a part of human nature; 
they go with the territory and they happen all the time. 

Survivors of the Nazi death camps provide the clearest imagina- 
ble demonstration that even the most monstrous abuse can be 
carried continuously in human memory. Indeed, the problem 
for many Holocaust survivors has been to put some emotional 
distance between themselves and the death camps, to forget. 
But if in some alternative world of inexpressible evil they were 
forced to live in Nazi Germany - let's say a thriving post-Hitler 
nation with its ideology intact, except that it's changed its mind 
about anti-Semitism - imagine the psychological burden on 
Holocaust survivors then. Then perhaps they would be able to 
forget, because remembering would make their current lives 
unbearable. If there is such a thing as the repression and 
subsequent recall of ghastly memories, then perhaps it requires 
two conditions: (1) that the abuse actually happened, and (2) 
that the victim was required to pretend for long periods of time 
that it never happened. 

The University of California social psychologist Richard Ofshe 

When patients are asked to explain how the memories 
returned, they report assembling fragments of images, ideas, 



feelings, and sensations into marginally coherent stories. As 
the so-called memory work stretches out for months, feelings 
become vague images, images become figures, and figures 
become known persons. Vague discomfort in certain parts of 
the body is reinterpreted as childhood rape . . . The original 
physical sensations, sometimes augmented by hypnosis, are 
then labeled 'body memories'. There is no conceivable 
mechanism by which the muscles of the body could store 
memories. If these methods fail to persuade, the therapist 
may resort to still more heavy-handed practices. Some 
patients are recruited into survivor groups in which peer 
pressure is brought to bear, and they are asked to demon- 
strate politically correct solidarity by establishing themselves 
as members of a survivor subculture. 

A cautious 1993 statement by the American Psychiatric Associa- 
tion accepts the possibility that some of us forget childhood abuse 
as a means of coping, but warns, 

It is not known how to distinguish, with complete accuracy, 
memories based on true events from those derived from other 
sources . . . Repeated questioning may lead individuals to 
report 'memories' of events that never occurred. It is not 
known what proportion of adults who report memories of 
sexual abuse were actually abused ... A strong prior belief 
by the psychiatrist that sexual abuse, or other factors, are or 
are not the cause of the patient's problems is likely to 
interfere with appropriate assessment and treatment. 

On the one hand, callously to dismiss charges of horrifying sexual 
abuse can be heartless injustice. On the other hand, to tamper 
with people's memories, to infuse false stories of childhood abuse, 
to break up intact families, and even to send innocent parents to 
prison is also heartless injustice. Scepticism is essential on both 
sides. Picking our way between these two extremes can be very 

Early editions of the influential book by Ellen Bass and 
Laura David (The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women 



Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 1988) give illuminating advice 
to therapists: 

Believe the survivor. You must believe your client was 
sexually abused, even if she doubts it herself . . . Your client 
needs you to stay steady in the belief that she was abused. 
Joining a client in doubt would be like joining a suicidal client 
in her belief that suicide is the best way out. If a client is 
unsure that she was abused but thinks she might have been, 
work as though she was. So far, among the hundreds of 
women we've talked to and the hundreds more we've heard 
about, not one has suspected that she might have been 
abused, explored it, and determined that she wasn't. 

But Kenneth V. Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent at the 
Behavioral Science Instruction and Research Unit of the FBI 
Academy in Quantico, Virginia, a leading expert on the sexual 
victimization of children, wonders: Are we making up for centu- 
ries of denial by now blindly accepting any allegation of child 
abuse, no matter how absurd or unlikely?' 'I don't care if it's true,' 
replies one California therapist reported by The Washington Post. 
'What actually happened is irrelevant to me . . . We all live in a 

The existence of any false accusation of childhood sexual abuse 
- especially those created under the ministrations of an authority 
figure - has, it seems to me, relevance to the alien abduction issue. 
If some people can with great passion and conviction be led to 
falsely remember being abused by their own parents, might not 
others, with comparable passion and conviction, be led to falsely 
remember being abused by aliens? 

The more I look into claims of alien abduction, the more 
similar they seem to reports of 'recovered memories' of child- 
hood sexual abuse. And there's a third class of related claims, 
repressed 'memories' of satanic ritual cults - in which sexual 
torture, coprophilia, infanticide and cannibalism are said to be 
prominently featured. In a survey of 2,700 members of the 
American Psychological Association, 12 per cent replied that 
they had treated cases of satanic ritual abuse (while 30 per cent 



reported cases of abuse done in the name of religion). Some- 
thing like 10,000 cases are reported annually in the United 
States in recent years. A significant number of those touting the 
peril of rampant satanism in America, including law enforce- 
ment officers who organize seminars on the subject, turn out to 
be Christian fundamentalists; their sects explicitly require a 
literal devil to be meddling in everyday human life. The 
connection is neatly drawn in the saying 'No Satan, no God'. 

Apparently, there is a pervasive police gullibility problem on 
this matter. Here are some excerpts from FBI expert Lanning's 
analysis of 'Satanic, Occult and Ritualistic Crime', based on bitter 
experience, and published in the October 1989 issue of the 
professional journal, The Police Chief: 

Almost any discussion of satanism and witchcraft is inter- 
preted in the light of the religious beliefs of those in the 
audience. Faith, not logic and reason, governs the religious 
beliefs of most people. As a result, some normally sceptical 
law enforcement officers accept the information disseminated 
at these conferences without critically evaluating it or ques- 
tioning the sources . . . For some people satanism is any 
religious belief system other than their own. 

Lanning then offers a long list of belief systems he has 
personally heard described as satanism at such conferences. It 
includes Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Churches, Islam, 
Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, rock and roll music, chan- 
nelling, astrology and New Age beliefs in general. Is there not a 
hint here about how witch hunts and pogroms get started? He 

Within the personal religious belief system of a law enforce- 
ment officer, Christianity may be good and satanism evil. 
Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an 
important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement 
officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, 
not the Ten Commandments . . . The fact is that far more 
crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the 



name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been 
committed in the name of Satan. Many people don't like that 
statement, but few can argue with it. 

Many of those alleging satanic abuse describe grotesque orgiastic 
rituals in which infants are murdered and eaten. Such claims have 
been made about reviled groups by their detractors throughout 
European history, including the Cataline conspirators in Rome, 
the Passover 'blood libel' against the Jews, and the Knights 
Templar as they were being dismantled in fourteenth-century 
France. Ironically, reports of cannibalistic infanticide and incestu- 
ous orgies were among the particulars used by Roman authorities 
to persecute the early Christians. After all, Jesus himself is quoted 
as saying (John vi, 53) 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, 
and drink his blood, ye have no life in you'. Although the next line 
makes it clear Jesus is talking about eating his own flesh and 
drinking his own blood, unsympathetic critics might have misun- 
derstood the Greek 'Son of man' to mean 'child' or 'infant'. 
Tertullian and other early Church fathers defended themselves 
against these grotesque accusations as best they could. 

Today, the lack of corresponding numbers of lost infants and 
young children in police files is explained by the claim that all over 
the world babies are being bred for this purpose, surely reminis- 
cent of abductee claims that alien/human breeding experiments 
are rampant. Also similar to the alien abduction paradigm, satanic 
cult abuse is said to pass down from generation to generation in 
certain families. To the best of my knowledge, as in the alien 
abduction paradigm, no physical evidence has ever been offered 
in a court of law to support such claims. Their emotional power, 
though, is evident. The mere possibility that such things are going 
on rouses us mammals to action. When we give credence to 
satanic ritual, we also raise the social status of those who warn us 
of the supposed danger. 

Consider these five cases: (1) Myra Obasi, a Louisiana school- 
teacher, was - she and her sisters believed after consultation with 
a hoodoo practitioner - possessed by demons. Her nephew's 
nightmares were part of the evidence. So they left for Dallas, 
abandoned their five children, and the sisters then gouged out Ms 



Obasi's eyes. At the trial, she defended her sisters. They were 
trying to help her, she said. But hoodoo is not devil-worship; it is a 
cross between Catholicism and African-Haitian nativist religion. 
(2) Parents beat their child to death because she would not 
embrace their brand of Christianity. (3) A child molester justifies 
his acts by reading the Bible to his victims. (4) A 14-year-old boy 
has his eyeball plucked out of his head in an exorcism ceremony. 
His assailant is not a satanist, but a Protestant fundamentalist 
minister engaged in religious pursuits. (5) A woman thinks her 
12-year-old son is possessed by the devil. After an incestuous 
relationship with him, she decapitates him. But there is no satanic 
ritual content to the 'possession'. 

The second and third cases come from FBI files. The last two 
come from a 1994 study by Dr Gail Goodman, a psychologist at 
the University of California, Davis, and her colleagues, done for 
the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. They examined 
over 12,000 claims of sexual abuse involving satanic ritual cults, 
and could not find a single one that held up to scrutiny. Therapists 
reported satanic abuse based only on, for instance, 'patient's 
disclosure via hypnotherapy' or children's 'fear of satanic sym- 
bols'. In some cases diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour 
common to many children. 'In only a few cases was physical 
evidence mentioned - usually, "scars".' But in most cases the 
'scars' were very faint or non-existent. 'Even when there were 
scars, it was not determined whether the victims themselves had 
caused them.' This also is very similar to alien abduction cases, as 
described below. George K. Ganaway, Professor of Psychiatry at 
Emory University, proposes that 'the most common likely cause 
of cult-related memories may very well turn out to be a mutual 
deception between the patient and the therapist'. 

One of the most troublesome cases of 'recovered memory' of 
satanic ritual abuse has been chronicled by Lawrence Wright in a 
remarkable book, Remembering Satan (1994). It concerns Paul 
Ingram, a man who may have had his life ruined because he was 
too gullible, too suggestible, too unpractised in scepticism. Ingram 
was, in 1988, Chairman of the Republican Party in Olympia, 
Washington, the chief civil deputy in the local sheriffs depart- 
ment, well regarded, highly religious, and responsible for warning 



children in social assemblies of the dangers of drugs. Then came 
the nightmare moment when one of his daughters - after a highly 
emotional session at a fundamentalist religious retreat - levelled 
the first of many charges, each more ghastly than the previous, 
that Ingram had sexually abused her, impregnated her, tortured 
her, made her available to other sheriffs deputies, introduced her 
to satanic rites, dismembered and ate babies . . . This had gone 
on since her childhood, she said, almost to the day she began to 
'remember' it all. 

Ingram could not see why his daughter should lie about this, 
although he himself had no recollection of it. But police investiga- 
tors, a consulting psychotherapist, and his minister at the Church 
of Living Water all explained that sex offenders often repressed 
memories of their crimes. Strangely detached but at the same time 
eager to cooperate, Ingram tried to recall. After a psychologist 
employed a closed-eye hypnotic technique to induce trance, 
Ingram began to visualize something similar to what the police 
were describing. What came to mind were not like real memories, 
but something like snatches of images in a fog. Every time he 
produced one - the more so the more odious the content - he was 
encouraged and reinforced. His pastor assured him that God 
would permit only genuine memories to surface in his reveries. 

'Boy, it's almost like I'm making it up,' Ingram said, 'but I'm not.' 
He suggested that a demon might be responsible. Under the same 
sort of influences, with the Church grapevine circulating the latest 
horrors that Ingram was confessing, and the police pressuring them, 
his other children and his wife also began 'remembering'. Prominent 
citizens were accused of participating in the orgiastic rites. Law 
enforcement officers elsewhere in America began paying attention. 
This was only the tip of the iceberg, some said. 

When Berkeley's Richard Ofshe was called in by the prosecu- 
tion, he performed a control experiment. It was a breath of fresh 
air. Merely suggesting to Ingram that he had forced his son and 
daughter to commit incest and asking him to use the 'memory 
recovery' technique he had learned, promptly elicited just such a 
'memory'. It required no pressure, no intimidation - just the 
suggestion and the technique were enough. But the alleged 
participants, who had 'remembered' so much else, denied it ever 



happened. Confronted with this evidence, Ingram vehemently 
denied he was making anything up or was influenced by others. 
His memory of this incident was as clear and 'real' as all his other 

One of the daughters described the terrible scars on her body 
from torture and forced abortions. But when she finally received a 
medical examination, there were no corresponding scars to be 
seen. The prosecution never tried Ingram on charges of satanic 
abuse. Ingram hired a lawyer who had never tried a criminal case. 
On his pastor's advice, he did not even read Ofshe's report: it 
would only confuse him, he was told. He pleaded guilty to six 
counts of rape, and ultimately was sent to prison. In jail, while 
awaiting sentencing, away from his daughters, his police col- 
leagues and his pastor, he reconsidered. He asked to withdraw his 
guilty plea. His memories had been coerced. He had not distin- 
guished real memories from a kind of fantasy. His plea was 
rejected. He is serving a twenty-year sentence. If it was the 
sixteenth century instead of the twentieth, perhaps the whole 
family would have been burned at the stake, along with a good 
fraction of the leading citizens of Olympia, Washington. 

The existence of a highly sceptical FBI report on the general 
subject of satanic abuse (Kenneth V. Lanning, 'Investigator's 
Guide to Allegations of "Ritual" Child Abuse', January 1992) is 
widely ignored by enthusiasts. Likewise, a 1994 study by the 
British Department of Health into claims of satanic abuse there 
concluded that, of 84 alleged instances, not one stood up to 
scrutiny. What then is all the furore about? The study explains, 

The Evangelical Christian campaign against new religious 
movements has been a powerful influence encouraging the 
identification of satanic abuse. Equally, if not more, impor- 
tant in spreading the idea of satanic abuse in Britain are the 
'specialists', American and British. They may have few or 
even no qualifications as professionals, but attribute their 
expertise to 'experience of cases'. 

Those convinced that devil cults represent a serious danger to our 
society tend to be impatient with sceptics. Consider this analysis 



by Corydon Hammond, PhD, past President of the American 
Society for Clinical Hypnosis: 

I will suggest to you that these people [sceptics] are either, 
one, naive and of limited clinical experience; two, have a kind 
of naivete that people have of the Holocaust, or they're just 
such intellectualizers and sceptics that they'll doubt every- 
thing; or, three, they're cult people themselves. And I can 
assure that there are people who are in that position . . . 
There are people who are physicians, who are mental health 
professionals, who are in the cults, who are raising trans- 
generational cults ... I think the research is real clear: We 
got three studies, one found 25 percent, one found 20 percent 
of out-patient multiples [multiple personality disorders] 
appear to be cult-abuse victims, and another on a specialized 
in-patient unit found 50 percent. 

In some of his statements, he seems to believe that satanic Nazi 
mind control experiments have been performed by the CIA on 
tens of thousands of unsuspecting American citizens. The over- 
arching motive, Hammond believes, is to 'create a satanic order 
that will rule the world'. 

In all three classes of 'recovered memories', there are specialists 
- alien abduction specialists, satanic cult specialists, and specialists 
in recalling repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. As is 
common in mental health practice, patients select or are referred 
to a therapist whose specialist seems relevant to their complaint. 
In all three classes, the therapist helps to draw forth images of 
events alleged to have occurred long ago (in some cases from 
decades past); in all three, therapists are profoundly moved by the 
unmistakably genuine agony of their patients; in all three, at least 
some therapists are known to ask leading questions - which are 
virtually orders by authority figures to suggestible patients insist- 
ing that they remember (I almost wrote 'confess'); in all three, 
there are networks of therapists who trade client histories and 
therapeutic methods; in all three, practitioners feel the necessity 
of defending their practice against more sceptical colleagues; in all 
three, the iatrogenic hypothesis is given short shrift; in all three, 



the majority of those who report abuse are women. And in all 
three classes - with the exceptions mentioned - there is no 
physical evidence. So it's hard not to wonder whether alien 
abductions might be part of some larger picture. 

What could this larger picture be? I posed this question to Dr 
Fred H. Frankel, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical 
School, Chief of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and 
a leading expert on hypnosis. His answer: 

If alien abductions are a part of a larger picture, what indeed 
is the larger picture? I fear to rush in where angels fear to 
tread; however, the factors you outline all feed what was 
described at the turn of the century as 'hysteria'. The term, 
sadly, became so widely used that our contemporaries in their 
dubious wisdom . . . not only dropped it, but also lost sight of 
the phenomena it represented: high levels of suggestibility, 
imaginal capacity, sensitivity to contextual cues and expecta- 
tions, and the element of contagion . . . Little of all of this 
seems to be appreciated by a large number of practicing 

In exact parallel to regressing people so they supposedly retrieve 
forgotten memories of 'past lives', Frankel notes that therapists 
can as readily progress people under hypnosis so they can 
'remember' their futures. This elicits the same emotive intensity as 
in regression or in Mack's abductee hypnosis. 'These people are 
not out to deceive the therapist. They deceive themselves,' 
Frankel says. 'They cannot distinguish their confabulations from 
their experiences.' 

If we fail to cope, if we're saddled with a burden of guilt for not 
having made more of ourselves, wouldn't we welcome the profes- 
sional opinion of a therapist with a diploma on the wall that it's 
not our fault, that we're off the hook, that satanists, or sexual 
abusers, or aliens from another planet are the responsible parties? 
Wouldn't we be willing to pay good money for this reassurance? 
And wouldn't we resist smart-ass sceptics telling us that it's all in 
our heads, or that it's implanted by the very therapists who have 
made us happier about ourselves? 



How much training in scientific method and sceptical scrutiny, in 
statistics, or even in human fallibility have these therapists received? 
Psychoanalysis is not a very self-critical profession, but at least 
many of its practitioners have MD degrees. Most medical curricula 
include significant exposure to scientific results and methods. But 
many of those dealing with abuse cases seem to have at best a 
casual acquaintance with science. Mental health providers in 
America are more likely by about two-to-one to be social workers 
than either psychiatrists or PhD psychologists. 

Most of these therapists contend that their responsibility is to 
support their patients, not to question, to be sceptical, or to raise 
doubts. Whatever is presented, no matter how bizarre, is accepted. 
Sometimes the prompting by therapists is not at all subtle. Here 
[from the False Memory Syndrome Foundation's FMS Newsletter, 
vol. 4, no. 4, p. 3, 1995] is a hardly atypical report: 

My former therapist has testified that he still believes that my 
mother is a satanist, [and] that my father molested me ... It 
was my therapist's delusional belief system and techniques 
involving suggestion and persuasion that led me to believe 
the lies were memories. When I doubted the reality of the 
memories he insisted they were true. Not only did he insist 
they were true, he informed me that in order to get well I 
must not only accept them as real, but remember them all. 

In a 1991 case in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, a teenager, Nicole 
Althaus, encouraged by a teacher and a social worker, accused her 
father of having sexually abused her, resulting in his arrest. Nicole also 
reported that she had given birth to three children, who her relatives 
had killed, that she had been raped in a crowded restaurant, and that 
her grandmother flew about on a broom. Nicole recanted her allega- 
tions the following year, and all charges against her father were 
dropped. Nicole and her parents brought a civil suit against the 
therapist and psychiatric clinic to whom Nicole had been referred 
shortly after she began making her accusations. The jury found that 
the doctor and the clinic had been negligent and awarded almost a 
quarter of a million dollars to Nicole and her parents. There are 
increasing numbers of cases of this sort. 



Might the competition among therapists for patients, and the 
obvious financial interest of therapists in prolonged therapy, make 
them less likely to offend patients by evincing some scepticism 
about their stories? How aware are they of the dilemma of a naive 
patient walking into a professional office and being told that the 
insomnia or obesity is due (in increasing order of bizarreness) to 
wholly forgotten parental abuse, satanic ritual, or alien abduction? 
While there are ethical and other constraints, we need something 
like a control experiment: perhaps the same patient sent to special- 
ists in all three fields. Does any of them say, 'No, your problem isn't 
due to forgotten childhood abuse' (or forgotten satanic ritual, or 
alien abduction, as appropriate)? How many of them say, 'There's a 
much more prosaic explanation'? Instead, Mack goes so far as to 
tell one of his patients admiringly and reassuringly that he is on a 
'hero's journey'. One group of 'abductees' - each having a separate 
but similar experience - writes 

[S]everal of us had finally summoned enough courage to 
present our experiences to professional counselors, only to 
have them nervously avoid the subject, raise an eyebrow in 
silence or interpret the experience as a dream or waking 
hallucination and patronizingly 'reassure' us that such things 
happen to people, 'but don't worry, you're basically mentally 
sound.' Great! We're not crazy, but if we take our experiences 
seriously, then we might become crazy! 

With enormous relief, they found a sympathetic therapist who not 
only accepted their stories at face value, but was full of stories of 
alien bodies and high-level government cover-up of UFOs. 

A typical UFO therapist finds his subjects in three ways: they 
write letters to him at an address given in the back of his books; 
they are referred to him by other therapists (mainly those who also 
specialize in alien abductions); or they come up to him after he 
presents a lecture. I wonder if any patient arrives at his portal 
wholly ignorant of popular abduction accounts and the therapist's 
own methods and beliefs. Before any words are exchanged, they 
know a great deal about one another. 

Another prominent therapist gives his patients his own articles on 



alien abductions to help them 'remember' their experiences. He is 
gratified when what they eventually recall under hypnosis resembles 
what he describes in his papers. The similarity of the cases is one of 
his chief reasons for believing that abductions really occur. 

A leading UFO scholar comments that 'When the hypnotist does 
not have an adequate knowledge of the subject [of alien abductions], 
the true nature of the abduction may never be revealed'. Can we 
discern in this remark how the patient might be led without the 
therapist realizing that he's leading? 

Sometimes when 'falling' asleep we have the sense of toppling from 
a height, and our limbs suddenly flail on their own. The startle 
reflex, it's called. Perhaps it's left over from when our ancestors slept 
in trees. Why should we imagine we recollect (a wonderful word) 
any better than we know when we're on firm ground? Why should 
we suppose that, of the vast treasure of memories stored in our 
heads, none of it could have been implanted after the event, by how 
a question is phrased when we're in a suggestible frame of mind, by 
the pleasure of telling or hearing a good story, by confusion with 
something we once read or overheard? 



The Dragon in My Garage 

[M]agic, it must be remembered, is an art which demands 
collaboration between the artist and his public. 

E.M. Butler, 
The Myth of the Magus (1948) 

Afire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.' Suppose (I'm 
following a group therapy approach by the psychologist 
Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. 
Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have 
been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no 
real evidence. What an opportunity! 

'Show me,' you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and 
see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle - but no dragon. 
'Where's the dragon?' you ask. 

'Oh, she's right here,' I reply, waving vaguely. 'I neglected to 
mention that she's an invisible dragon.' 

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to 
capture the dragon's footprints. 

'Good idea,' I say, 'but this dragon floats in the air.' 

Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire. 

'Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.' 

You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible. 

'Good idea, except she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint 
won't stick.' 


The Dragon in My Garage 

An so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a 
special explanation of why it won't work. 

Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, 
floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If 
there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experi- 
ment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my 
dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at 
all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, 
assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever 
value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of 
wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in 
the absence of evidence, on my say-so. 

The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that 
there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on 
inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what 
convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucina- 
tion would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it 
so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've 
seriously underestimated human fallibility. 

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish 
to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the 
notion that there's a fire -breathing dragon in my garage. You merely 
put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new 
body of data emerges you're prepared to examine it and see if it 
convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being 
believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative, 
merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of 'not proved'. 

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible, 
all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. 
Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a 
jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how 
sceptical you might have been about the existence of dragons - to 
say nothing about invisible ones - you must now acknowledge that 
there's something here, and that in a preliminary way it's consist- 
ent with an invisible, fire -breathing dragon. 

Now another scenario: suppose it's not just me. Suppose that 
several people of your acquaintance, including people who you're 
pretty sure don't know each other, all tell you they have dragons 



in their garages, but in every case the evidence is maddeningly 
elusive: All of us admit we're disturbed at being gripped by so odd 
a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us 
is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible 
dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with 
us humans just catching on. I'd rather it not be true, I tell you. But 
maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about 
dragons weren't myths at all . . . 

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now 
reported. But they're never made when a sceptic is looking. An 
alternative explanation presents itself: on close examination it 
seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another 
dragon enthusiast shows up with a burned finger and attributes it 
to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon's fiery breath. But 
again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other 
ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such 
'evidence' - no matter how important the dragon advocates 
consider it - is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible 
approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open 
to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be 
that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same 
strange delusion. 

Magic requires tacit cooperation of the audience with the magi- 
cian - an abandonment of scepticism, or what is sometimes 
described as the willing suspension of disbelief. It immediately 
follows that to penetrate the magic, to expose the trick, we must 
cease collaborating. 

How can further progress be made in this emotionally laden, 
controversial and vexing subject? Patients might exercise caution 
about therapists quick to deduce or confirm alien abductions. 
Those treating abductees might explain to their patients that 
hallucinations are normal, and that childhood sexual abuse is 
disconcertingly common. They might bear in mind that no client 
can be wholly uncontaminated by the aliens in popular culture. 
They might take scrupulous care not subtly to lead the witness. 
They might teach their clients scepticism. They might recharge 
their own dwindling reserves of the same commodity. 


The Dragon in My Garage 

Purported alien abductions trouble many people and in more 
ways than one. The subject is a window into the internal lives of 
our fellows. If many falsely report being abducted, this is cause for 
worry. But much more worrisome is that so many therapists 
accept these reports at face value, with inadequate attention given 
to the suggestibility of clients and to unconscious cuing by their 

I'm surprised that there are psychiatrists and others with at least 
some scientific training, who know the imperfections of the 
human mind, but who dismiss the idea that these accounts might 
be some species of hallucination, or some kind of screen memory. 
I'm even more surprised by claims that the alien abduction story 
represents true magic, that it is a challenge to our grip on reality, 
or that it constitutes support for a mystical view of the world. Or, 
as the matter is put by John Mack, 'There are phenomena 
important enough to warrant serious research, and the metaphys- 
ics of the dominant Western scientific paradigm may be inad- 
equate fully to support this research.' In an interview with Time 
magazine, he goes on to say: 

I don't know why there's such a zeal to find a conventional 
physical explanation. I don't know why people have such 
trouble simply accepting the fact that something unusual is 
going on here . . . We've lost all that ability to know a world 
beyond the physical.* 

But we know that hallucinations arise from sensory deprivation, 
drugs, illness and high fever, a lack of REM sleep, changes in 
brain chemistry and so on, And even if, with Mack, we took the 
cases at face value, their remarkable aspects (slithering through 
walls and so on) are more readily attributable to something well 
within the realm of 'the physical' - advanced alien technology - 
than to witchcraft. 

A friend of mine claims that the only interesting question in the 

* And then, in a sentence that reminds us how close the alien abduction 
paradigm is to messianic and chiliastic religion, Mack concludes, 'I am a bridge 
between those two worlds.' 



alien abduction paradigm is 'Who's conning who?' Is the client 
deceiving the therapist, or vice versa? I disagree. For one thing, 
there are many other interesting questions about claims of alien 
abduction. For another, those two alternatives aren't mutually 

Something about the alien abduction cases tugged at my memory 
for years. Finally, I remembered. It was a 1954 book I had read in 
college, The Fifty-Minute Hour. The author, a psychoanalyst named 
Robert Lindner, had been called by the Los Alamos National 
Laboratory to treat a brilliant young nuclear physicist whose delu- 
sional system was beginning to interfere with his secret government 
research. The physicist (given the pseudonym Kirk Allen) had, it 
turned out, another life besides making nuclear weapons: in the far 
future, he confided, he piloted (or will pilot - the tenses get a little 
addled) interstellar spacecraft. He enjoyed rousing, swashbuckling 
adventures on planets of other stars. He was 'lord' of many worlds. 
Perhaps they called him Captain Kirk. Not only could he 'remember' 
this other life; he could also enter into it whenever he chose. By 
thinking in the right way, by wishing, he could transport himself 
across the light years and the centuries. 

In some way I could not comprehend, by merely desiring it to 
be so, I had crossed the immensities of space, broken out of 
time, and merged with - literally became - that distant and 
future self . . . Don't ask me to explain. I can't, although 
God knows I've tried. 

Lindner found him intelligent, sensitive, pleasant, polite and 
perfectly able to deal with everyday human affairs. But, in 
reflecting on the excitement of his life among the stars, Allen had 
found himself a little bored with his life on Earth, even if it did 
involve building weapons of mass destruction. When admonished 
by his laboratory supervisors for distraction and dreaminess, he 
apologized; he would try, he assured them, to spend more time on 
this planet. That's when they contacted Lindner. 

Allen had written 12,000 pages on his experiences in the future, 
and dozens of technical treatises on the geography, politics, architec- 
ture, astronomy, geology, life forms, genealogy and ecology of the 


The Dragon in My Garage 

planets of other stars. A flavour of the material is given by these 
monograph titles: 'The Unique Brain Development of the Chrysto- 
peds of Srom Norba X', 'Fire Worship and Sacrifice on Srom Sodrat 
IT, "The History of the Intergalactic Scientific Institute', and 'The 
Application of Unified Field Theory and the Mechanics of the 
Stardrive to Space Travel'. (That last is the one I'd like to see; after 
all, Allen was said to have been a first-rate physicist.) Fascinated, 
Lindner pored over the material. 

Allen was not in the least shy about presenting his writings to 
Lindner or discussing them in detail. Unflappable and intellectu- 
ally formidable, he seemed not to be yielding an inch to Lindner's 
psychiatric ministrations. When everything else failed, the psy- 
chiatrist attempted something different: 

I tried ... to avoid giving in any way the impression that I 
was entering the lists with him to prove that he was psychotic, 
that this was to be a tug of war over the question of his sanity. 
Instead, because it was obvious that both his temperament 
and training were scientific, I set myself to capitalize on the 
one quality he had demonstrated throughout his life . . . the 
quality that urged him toward a scientific career: his curios- 
ity .. . This meant . . . that at least for the time being I 
'accepted' the validity of his experiences ... In a sudden 
flash of inspiration it came to me that in order to separate 
Kirk from his madness it was necessary for me to enter his 
fantasy and, from that position, to pry him loose from the 

Lindner highlighted certain apparent contradictions in the docu- 
ments and asked Allen to resolve them. This required the 
physicist to re-enter the future to find the answers. Dutifully, 
Allen would arrive at the next session with a clarifying document 
written in his neat hand. Lindner found himself eagerly awaiting 
each interview, so he could be once more captivated by the vision 
of abundant life and intelligence in the galaxy. Between them, 
they were able to resolve many problems of consistency. 

Then a strange thing happened: 'The materials of Kirk's 
psychosis and the Achilles heel of my personality met and meshed 



like the gears of a clock.' The psychoanalyst became a 
co-conspirator in his patient's delusion. He began to reject 
psychological explanations of Allen's story. How sure are we that 
it couldn't really be true? He found himself defending the notion 
that another life, that of a spacefarer in the far future, could be 
entered into by a simple effort of the will. 

At a startlingly rapid rate . . . larger and larger areas of my 
mind were being taken over by the fantasy . . . With Kirk's 
puzzled assistance I was taking part in cosmic adventures, 
sharing the exhilaration of the sweeping extravaganza he had 

But eventually, an even stranger thing happened: concerned for 
the well-being of his therapist, and mustering admirable reserves 
of integrity and courage, Kirk Allen confessed: he had made the 
whole thing up. It had roots in his lonely childhood and his 
unsuccessful relationships with women. He had shaded, and then 
forgotten, the boundary between reality and imagination. Filling 
in plausible details and weaving a rich tapestry about other worlds 
was challenging and exhilarating. He was sorry he had led Lindner 
down this primrose path. 

'Why,' the psychiatrist asked, 'why did you pretend? Why did 
you keep on telling me . . .?' 

'Because I felt I had to,' the physicist replied. 'Because I felt 
you wanted me to. ' 

'Kirk and I reversed roles,' Lindner explained, 

and, in one of those startling denouements that make my 
work the unpredictable, wonderful and rewarding pursuit it 
is, the folly we shared collapsed ... I employed the rationali- 
zation of clinical altruism for personal ends and thus fell into 
a trap that awaits all unwary therapists of the mind . . . Until 
Kirk Allen came into my life, I had never doubted my own 
stability. The aberrations of mind, so I had always thought, 
were for others ... I am ashamed by this smugness. But 
now, as I listen from my chair behind the couch, I know 
better. I know that my chair and the couch are separated only 


The Dragon in My Garage 

by a thin line. I know that it is, after all, but a happier 
combination of accidents that determines, finally, who shall 
lie on the couch, and who shall sit behind it. 

I'm not sure from this account that Kirk Allen was truly delu- 
sional. Maybe he was just suffering from some character disorder 
which delighted in inventing charades at the expense of others. I 
don't know to what extent Lindner may have embellished or 
invented part of the story. While he wrote of 'sharing' and of 
'entering' Allen's fantasy, there is nothing to suggest that the 
psychiatrist imagined he himself voyaged to the far future and 
partook of interstellar high adventure. Likewise, John Mack and 
the other alien abduction therapists do not suggest that they have 
been abducted; only their patients. 

What if the physicist hadn't confessed? Might Lindner have 
convinced himself, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it really was 
possible to slip into a more romantic era? Would he have said he 
started out as a sceptic, but was convinced by the sheer weight of 
the evidence? Might he have advertised himself as an expert who 
assists space travellers from the future who are stranded in the 
twentieth century? Would the existence of such a psychiatric 
speciality encourage others to take fantasies or delusions of this 
sort seriously? After a few similar cases, would Lindner have 
impatiently resisted all arguments of the 'Be reasonable, Bob' 
variety, and deduced he was penetrating some new level of 

His scientific training helped to save Kirk Allen from his 
madness. There was a moment when therapist and patient had 
exchanged roles. I like to think of it as the patient saving the 
therapist. Perhaps John Mack was not so lucky. 

Consider a very different approach to finding aliens - the radio 
search for extraterrestrial intelligence. How is this different from 
fantasy and pseudoscience? In Moscow in the early 1960s, Soviet 
astronomers held a press conference in which they announced that 
the intense radio emission from a mysterious distant object called 
CTA-102 was varying regularly, like a sine wave, with a period of 
about 100 days. No periodic distant source had ever before been 



found. Why did they convene a press conference to announce so 
arcane a discovery? Because they thought they had detected an 
extraterrestrial civilization of immense powers. Surely, that's worth 
calling a press conference for. The report was briefly a media 
sensation, and the rock group, The Byrds, even composed and 
recorded a song about it. ('CTA-102, we're over here receiving you./ 
Signals tell us that you're there./ We can hear them loud and 

Radio emission from CTA-102? Certainly. But what is CTA-102? 
Today we know that CTA-102 is a distant quasar. At the time, the 
word 'quasar' had not even been coined. We still don't know very 
well what quasars are; and there is more than one mutually exclu- 
sive explanation for them in scientific literature. Nevertheless, no 
astronomers today, including those involved in that Moscow press 
conference, seriously contend that a quasar like CTA-102 is some 
extraterrestrial civilization billions of light years away with access 
to immense power levels. Why not? Because we have alternative 
explanations of the properties of quasars that are consistent with 
known physical laws and that do not invoke alien life. Extraterres- 
trials represent a hypothesis of last resort. You reach for it only if 
everything else fails. 

In 1967, British scientists found a much nearer intense radio 
source turning on and off with astonishing precision, its period 
constant to ten or more significant figures. What was it? Their first 
thought was that it was a message intended for us, or maybe an 
interstellar navigation and timing beacon for spacecraft that ply the 
space between the stars. They even gave it, among themselves at 
Cambridge University, the wry designation LGM-1 - LGM stand- 
ing for Little Green Men. 

However, they were wiser than their Soviet counterparts. They 
did not call a press conference. It soon became clear that what 
they were observing was what is now called a 'pulsar', the first 
pulsar to be discovered. So, what's a pulsar? A pulsar is the end 
state of a massive star, a sun shrunk to the size of a city, held up 
as no other stars are, not by gas pressure, not by electron 
degeneracy, but by nuclear forces. It is in a certain sense an 
atomic nucleus a mile or so across. Now that, I maintain, is a 
notion at least as bizarre as an interstellar navigation beacon. The 

The Dragon in My Garage 

answer to what a pulsar is has to be something mighty strange. It 
isn't an extraterrestrial civilization. It's something else: but a 
something else that opens our eyes and our minds and indicates 
unguessed possibilities in Nature. Anthony Hewish won the Nobel 
Prize in physics for the discovery of pulsars. 

The original Ozma experiment (the first intentional radio 
search for extraterrestrial intelligence), the Harvard University/ 
Planetary Society META (Megachannel Extraterrestrial Assay) 
programme, the Ohio State University search, the SERENDIP 
Project of the University of California, Berkeley, and many other 
groups have all detected anomalous signals from space that make 
the observer's heart palpitate a little. We think for a moment that 
we've picked up a genuine signal of intelligent origin from far 
beyond our solar system. In reality, we have not the foggiest idea 
what it is, because the signal does not repeat. A few minutes later, 
or the next day, or years later you turn the same telescope to the 
same spot in the sky with the same frequency, bandpass, polariza- 
tion, and everything else, and you don't hear a thing. You don't 
deduce, much less announce, aliens. It may have been a statisti- 
cally inevitable electronic surge, or a malfunction in the detection 
system, or a spacecraft (from Earth), or a military aircraft flying 
by and broadcasting on channels that are supposed to be reserved 
for radio astronomy. Maybe it's even a garage door opener down 
the street or a radio station a hundred kilometres away. There are 
many possibilities. You must systematically check out all the 
alternatives, and see which ones can be eliminated. You don't 
declare that aliens have been found when your only evidence is an 
enigmatic non-repeating signal. 

And if the signal did repeat, would you then announce it to the 
press and the public? You would not. Maybe someone's hoaxing 
you. Maybe it's something you haven't been smart enough to 
figure out that's happening to your detection system. Maybe it's 
some previously unrecognized astrophysical source. Instead, you 
would call scientists at other radio observatories and inform them 
that at this particular spot in the sky, at this frequency and 
bandpass and all the rest, you seem to be getting something funny. 
Could they please see if they can confirm? Only if several 
independent observers - all of them fully aware of the complexity 



of Nature and the fallibility of observers - get the same kind of 
information from the same spot in the sky do you seriously 
consider that you have detected a genuine signal from alien 

There's a certain discipline involved. We can't just go off 
shouting 'little green men' every time we detect something we 
don't at first understand, because we're going to look mighty silly 
- as the Soviet radio astronomers did with CTA-102 - when it 
turns out to be something else. Special cautions are necessary 
when the stakes are high. We are not obliged to make up our 
minds before the evidence is in. It's permitted not to be sure. 

I'm frequently asked, 'Do you believe there's extraterrestrial 
intelligence?' I give the standard arguments - there are a lot of 
places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the 
word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me 
if there weren't extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is 
as yet no compelling evidence for it. 

Often, I'm asked next, 'What do you really think?' 

I say, 'I just told you what I really think.' 

'Yes, but what's your gut feeling?' 

But I try not to think with my gut. If I'm serious about 
understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, 
as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. 
Really, it's okay to reserve judgement until the evidence is in. 

I would be very happy if flying saucer advocates and alien 
abduction proponents were right and real evidence of extraterres- 
trial life were here for us to examine. They do not ask us, though, 
to believe on faith. They ask us to believe on the strength of their 
evidence. Surely it is our duty to scrutinize the purported evidence 
at least as closely and sceptically as radio astronomers do who are 
searching for alien radio signals. 

No anecdotal claim - no matter how sincere, no matter how 
deeply felt, no matter how exemplary the lives of the attesting 
citizens - carries much weight on so important a question. As in 
the older UFO cases, anecdotal accounts are subject to irreducible 
error. This is not a personal criticism of those who say they've 
been abducted or of those who interrogate them. It is not 


The Dragon in My Garage 

tantamount to contempt for purported witnesses." It is not, or 
should not be, arrogant dismissal of sincere and affecting testi- 
mony. It is merely a reluctant response to human fallibility. 

If any powers whatever may be ascribed to the aliens - because 
their technology is so advanced - then we can account for any 
discrepancy, inconsistency or implausibility. For instance, one 
academic UFOlogist suggests that both the aliens and the abduct- 
ees are rendered invisible during the abduction (although not to 
each other); that's why more of the neighbours haven't noticed. 
Such 'explanations' can explain anything, and therefore in fact 

American police procedure concentrates on evidence and not 
anecdotes. As the European witch trials remind us, suspects can 
be intimidated during interrogation; people confess to crimes they 
never committed; eyewitnesses can be mistaken. This is also the 
linchpin of much detective fiction. But real, unfabricated evidence 
- powder burns, fingerprints, DNA samples, footprints, hair 
under the fingernails of the struggling victim - carry great weight. 
Criminalists employ something very close to the scientific method, 
and for the same reasons. So in the world of UFOs and alien 
abductions, it is fair to ask: where is the evidence - the real, 
unambiguous physical evidence, the data that would convince a 
jury that hasn't already made up its mind? 

Some enthusiasts argue that there are 'thousands' of cases of 
'disturbed' soil where UFOs supposedly landed, and why isn't that 
good enough? It isn't good enough because there are ways of 
disturbing the soil other than by aliens in UFOs - humans with 
shovels is a possibility that springs readily to mind. One UFOlo- 
gist rebukes me for ignoring '4,400 physical trace cases from 65 
countries'. But not one of these cases, so far as I know, has been 
analysed with results published in a peer-reviewed journal in 
physics or chemistry, metallurgy or soil science, showing that the 
'traces' could not have been generated by people. It's a modest 
enough scam compared, say, with the crop circles of Wiltshire. 

*They cannot be called, simply, witnesses - because whether they witnessed 
anything (or, at least, anything in the outside world) is often the very point at 



Likewise, not only can photographs easily be faked, but huge 
numbers of alleged photographs of UFOs have without a doubt 
been faked. Some enthusiasts go out night after night into a field 
looking for bright lights in the sky. When they see one, they flash 
their flashlights. Sometimes, they say, there's an answering flash. 
Well, maybe. But low-altitude aircraft make lights in the sky, and 
pilots are able, if so inclined, to blink their lights back. None of 
this constitutes anything approaching serious evidence. 

Where is the physical evidence? As in satanic ritual abuse 
claims (and echoing 'Devil's marks' in the witch trials), the most 
common physical evidence pointed to are scars and 'scoop marks' 
on the bodies of abductees - who say they have no knowledge of 
where their scars came from. But this point is key: if the scars are 
within human capacity to generate, then they cannot be compel- 
ling physical evidence of abuse by aliens. Indeed, there are 
well-known psychiatric disorders in which people scoop, scar, 
tear, cut and mutilate themselves (or others). And some of us with 
high pain thresholds and bad memories can injure ourselves 
accidentally with no recollection of the event. 

One of John Mack's patients claims to have scars all over her 
body that are wholly baffling to her physicians. What do they look 
like? Oh, she can't show them; as in the witch mania, they're in 
private places. Mack considers this compelling evidence. Has he 
seen the scars? Can we have photographs of the scars taken by a 
sceptical physician? Mack knows, he says, a quadriplegic with 
scoop marks and considers this a reductio ad absurdum of the 
sceptical position; how can a quadriplegic scar himself? The 
argument is a good one only if the quadriplegic is hermetically 
sealed in a room to which no other human has access. Can we see 
his scars? Can an independent physician examine him? Another of 
Mack's patients says that the aliens have been taking eggs from 
her since she was sexually mature, and that her reproductive 
system baffles her gynaecologist. Is it baffling enough to write the 
case up and submit a research paper to The New England Journal 
of Medicine? Apparently it's not that baffling. 

Then we have the fact that one of his subjects made the whole 
thing up, as reported by Time magazine, and Mack didn't have a 
clue. He bought it hook, line and sinker. What are his standards of 


The Dragon in My Garage 

critical scrutiny? If he allowed himself to be deceived by one 
subject, how do we know the same wasn't true of all? 

Mack talks about these cases, the 'phenomena', as posing a 
fundamental challenge to western thinking, to science, to logic 
itself. Probably, he says, the abducting entities are not alien 
beings from our own universe, but visitors from 'another dimen- 
sion'. Here's a typical, and revealing, passage from his book: 

When abductees call their experience 'dreams', which they 
often do, close questioning can elicit that this may be a 
euphemism to cover what they are sure cannot be that, 
namely an event from which there was no awakening that 
occurred in another dimension. 

Now the idea of higher dimensions did not arise from the brow of 
UFOlogy or the New Age. Instead, it is part and parcel of the 
physics of the twentieth century. Since Einstein's general relativ- 
ity, a truism of cosmology is that space-time is bent or curved 
through a higher physical dimension. Kaluza-Klein theory posits 
an eleven-dimensional universe. Mack presents a thoroughly 
scientific idea as the key to 'phenomena' beyond the reach of 

We know something about how a higher-dimensional object 
would look in encountering our three-dimensional universe. For 
clarity, let's go down one dimension: an apple passing through a 
plane must change its shape as perceived by two-dimensional 
beings confined to the plane. First it seems to be a point, then 
larger apple cross-sections, then smaller ones, a point again, and 
finally - poof! - gone. Similarly, a fourth- or higher-dimensional 
object - provided it's not a very simple figure such as a hypercyl- 
inder passing through three dimensions along its axis - will wildly 
alter its geometry as we witness it passing through our universe. If 
aliens were systematically reported as shape-changers, I could 
at least see how Mack might pursue the notion of a higher- 
dimensional origin. (Another problem is trying to understand 
what a genetic cross between a three-dimensional and a four- 
dimensional being means. Are the offspring from the IVi 



What Mack really means when he talks about beings from other 
dimensions is that, despite his patients' occasional descriptions of 
their experiences as dreams and hallucinations, he hasn't the 
foggiest notion of what they are. But, tellingly, when he tries to 
describe them, he reaches for physics and mathematics. He wants 
it both ways - the language and credibility of science, but without 
being bound by its method and rules. He seems not to realize that 
the credibility is a consequence of the method. 

The main challenge posed by Mack's cases is the old one of 
how to teach critical thinking more broadly and more deeply in 
a society - conceivably even including Harvard professors of 
psychiatry - awash in gullibility. The idea that critical thinking 
is the latest western fad is silly. If you're buying a used car in 
Singapore or Bangkok, or a used chariot in ancient Susa or 
Rome, the same precautions will be useful as in Cambridge, 

When you buy a used car, you might very much want to believe 
what the salesman is saying: 'So much car for so little money!' 
And anyway, it takes work to be sceptical; you have to know 
something about cars, and it's unpleasant to make the salesman 
angry at you. Despite all that, though, you recognize that the 
salesman might have a motive to shade the truth, and you've 
heard of other people in similar situations being taken. So you 
kick the tyres, look under the hood, go for a test drive, ask 
searching questions. You might even bring along a mechanically 
inclined friend. You know that some scepticism is required and 
you understand why. There is usually at least a small degree of 
hostile confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and 
nobody claims it's an especially cheering experience. But if you 
don't exercise some minimal scepticism, if you have an absolutely 
untrammelled gullibility, there's a price you'll have to pay later. 
Then you'll wish you had made a small investment of scepticism 
early on. 

Many homes in America now have moderately sophisticated 
burglar alarm systems, including infrared sensors and cameras 
triggered by motion. An authentic videotape, with time and date 
denoted, showing an alien incursion - especially as they slip 
through the walls - might be very good evidence. If millions of 


The Dragon in My Garage 

Americans have been abducted, isn't it strange that not one lives 
in such a home? 

Some women, so the story goes, are impregnated by aliens or 
alien sperm; the foetuses are then removed by the aliens. Vast 
numbers of such cases are alleged. Isn't it odd that nothing 
anomalous has ever been seen in routine sonograms of such 
foetuses, or in amniocentesis, and that there has never been a 
miscarriage producing an alien hybrid? Or are medical personnel 
so doltish that they idly glance at the half-human, half-alien foetus 
and move on to the next patient? An epidemic of missing foetuses 
is something that would surely cause a stir among gynaecologists, 
midwives, obstetrical nurses, especially in an age of heightened 
feminist awareness. But not a single medical record has been 
produced substantiating such claims. 

Some UFOlogists consider it a telling point that women who 
claim to have been sexually inactive wind up pregnant, and 
attribute their state to alien impregnation. A goodly number 
appear to be teenagers. Taking their stories at face value is not the 
only option available to the serious investigator. Surely we can 
understand why, in the anguish of an unwanted pregnancy, a 
teenager living in a society flooded with accounts of alien visita- 
tion might invent such a story. Here, too, there are possible 
religious antecedents. 

Some abductees say that tiny implants, perhaps metallic, were 
inserted into their bodies, high up their nostrils, for example. 
These implants, alien abduction therapists tell us, sometimes 
accidentally fall out, but 'in all but a few of the cases the artefact 
has been lost or discarded'. These abductees seem stupefyingly 
incurious. A strange object, possibly a transmitter sending tele- 
metered data about the state of your body to an alien spaceship 
somewhere above the Earth, drops out of your nose; you idly 
examine it and then throw it in the garbage. Something like this is 
true, we are told, of the majority of abduction cases. 

A few such 'implants' have been produced and examined by 
experts. None has been confirmed as of unearthly manufacture. 
No components are made of unusual isotopes, despite the fact that 
other stars and other worlds are known to be constituted of 
different isotopic proportions from the Earth. There are no metals 



from the transuranic 'island of stability', where physicists think 
there should be a new family of non-radioactive chemical ele- 
ments unknown on Earth. 

What abduction enthusiasts considered the best case was that of 
Richard Price, who claims that aliens abducted him when he was 
eight years old and implanted a small artefact in his penis. A 
quarter century later a physician confirmed a 'foreign body' 
embedded there. After eight more years, it fell out. Roughly a 
millimetre in diameter and four millimetres long, it was carefully 
examined by scientists from MIT and Massachusetts General 
Hospital. Their conclusion? Collagen formed by the body at sites 
of inflammation plus cotton fibres from Price's underpants. 

On 28 August 1995, television stations owned by Rupert Murdoch 
ran what was purported to be an autopsy of a dead alien, shot on 
16-millimetre film. Masked pathologists in vintage radiation- 
protection suits (with rectangular glass windows to see out of) cut up 
a large-eyed 12-fmgered figure and examined the internal organs. 
While the film was sometimes out of focus, and the view of the 
cadaver often blocked by the humans crowding around it, some 
viewers found the effect chilling. The Times of London, also owned 
by Murdoch, didn't know what to make of it, although it did quote 
one pathologist who thought the autopsy performed with unseemly 
and unrealistic haste (ideal, though, for television viewing). It was 
said to have been shot in New Mexico in 1947 by a participant, now 
in his eighties, who wished to remain anonymous. What appeared to 
be the clincher was the announcement that the leader of the film (its 
first few feet) contained coded information that Kodak, the manu- 
facturer, dated to 1947. However, it turns out that the full film 
magazine was not presented to Kodak, just the cut leader. For all we 
know, the leader could have been cut from a 1947 newsreel, 
abundantly archived in America, and the 'autopsy' staged and filmed 
separately and recently. There's a dragon footprint all right - but a 
fakable one. If this is a hoax, as I think likely, it requires not much 
more cleverness than crop circles and the MJ-12 document. 

In none of these stories is there anything strongly suggestive of 
extraterrestrial origin. There is certainly no retrieval of cunning 
machinery far beyond current technology. No abductee has 
filched a page from the captain's logbook, or an examining 


The Dragon in My Garage 

instrument, or taken an authentic photograph of the interior of 
the ship, or come back with detailed and verifiable scientific 
information not hitherto available on Earth. Why not? These 
failures must tell us something. 

Since the middle of the twentieth century, we've been assured 
by proponents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis that physical 
evidence - not star maps remembered from years ago, not scars, 
not disturbed soil, but real alien technology - was in hand. The 
analysis would be released momentarily. These claims go back to 
the earliest crashed saucer scam of Newton and GeBauer. Now 
it's decades later and we're still waiting. Where are the articles 
published in the refereed scientific literature, in the metallurgical 
and ceramics journals, in publications of the Institute of Electrical 
and Electronic Engineers, in Science or Nature? 

Such a discovery would be momentous. If there were real 
artefacts, physicists and chemists would be fighting for the privi- 
lege of discovering that there are aliens among us who use, say, 
unknown alloys, or materials of extraordinary tensile strength or 
ductility or conductivity. The practical implications of such a 
finding, never mind the confirmation of an alien invasion, would 
be immense. Discoveries like this are what scientists live for. 
Their absence must tell us something. 

Keeping an open mind is a virtue - but, as the space engineer 
James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out. Of 
course we must be willing to change our minds when warranted by 
new evidence. But the evidence must be strong. Not all claims to 
knowledge have equal merit. The standard of evidence in most of 
the alien abduction cases is roughly what is found in cases of the 
apparition of the Virgin Mary in medieval Spain. 

The pioneering psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, had much 
that was sensible to say on issues of this sort. He explicitly argued 
that UFOs were a kind of projection of the unconscious mind. In a 
related discussion of regression and what today is called 'channel- 
ling', he wrote 

One can very well . . . take it simply as a report of psycho- 
logical facts or a continuous series of communications from 



the unconscious . . . They have this in common with dreams; 
for dreams, too, are statements about the unconscious . . . The 
present state of affairs gives us reason enough to wait quietly 
until more impressive physical phenomena put in an appear- 
ance. If, after making allowance for conscious and unconscious 
falsification, self-deception, prejudice, etc., we should still find 
something positive behind them, then the exact sciences will 
surely conquer this field by experiment and verification, as has 
happened in every other realm of human experience. 

Of those who accept such testimony at face value, he remarked 

These people are lacking not only in criticism but in the most 
elementary knowledge of psychology. At bottom they do not 
want to be taught any better, but merely to go on believing - 
surely the naivest of presumptions in view of our human failings. 

Perhaps some day there will be a UFO or alien abduction case that 
is well attested, accompanied by compelling physical evidence, 
and explicable only in terms of extraterrestrial visitation. It's hard 
to think of a more important discovery. So far, though, there have 
been no such cases, nothing that comes close. So far, the invisible 
dragon has left no unfakable footprints. 

Which, then, is more likely: that we're undergoing a massive 
but generally overlooked invasion by alien sexual abusers, or that 
people are experiencing some unfamiliar internal mental state 
they do not understand? Admittedly, we're very ignorant both 
about extraterrestrial beings, if any, and about human psychol- 
ogy. But if these really were the only two alternatives, which one 
would you pick? 

And if the alien abduction accounts are mainly about brain 
physiology, hallucinations, distorted memories of childhood, and 
hoaxing, don't we have before us a matter of supreme importance, 
touching on our limitations, the ease with which we can be misled 
and manipulated, the fashioning of our beliefs, and perhaps even 
the origins of our religions? There is genuine scientific paydirt in 
UFOs and alien abductions - but it is, I think, of a distinctly 
home-grown and terrestrial character. 



The City of Grief 

. . . how alien, alas, are the streets of the city of grief. 

Rainer Maria Rilke, 
'The Tenth Elegy' (1923) 

A short summary of the argument in the preceding seven 
chapters appeared in Parade magazine on 7 March 1993. I 
was struck by how many letters it evoked, how passionate were 
the responses, and how much agony is associated with this strange 
experience whatever its true explanation might be. Alien abduc- 
tion accounts provide an unexpected window into the lives of 
some of our fellow citizens. Some letter writers reasoned, some 
asserted, some harangued, some were frankly perplexed, some 
were deeply troubled. 

The article was also widely misunderstood. A television talk- 
show host, Geraldo Rivera, held up a copy of Parade and 
announced I thought we were being visited. A Washington Post 
video cassette reviewer quoted me as saying there's an abduction 
every few seconds, missing the ironical tone and the following 
sentence ('It's surprising more of the neighbours haven't 
noticed'). My description (Chapter 6) of on rare occasions seem- 
ing to hear the voices of my dead parents - what I described as 'a 
lucid recollection' - were keynoted by Raymond Moody, in the 
New Age Journal and in the Introduction of his book Reunions, as 
evidence that we 'survive' death. Dr Moody has spent his life 



trying to find evidence of life after death. If my testimony is worth 
quoting, it seems clear he hasn't found much. Many letter writers 
concluded that since I had worked on the possibility of extrater- 
restrial life, I must 'believe' in UFOs; or conversely that, if I was 
sceptical about UFOs, I must embrace the absurd belief that 
humans are the only intelligent beings in the Universe. There's 
something about this subject unconducive to clear thinking. 

Here, without further comment, is a representative sampling of 
my mail on the subject: 

• I wonder how some of our fellow animals may describe their 
encounters with us. They see a large hovering object making a 
terrible noise above them. They begin to run and feel a sharp 
pain in their side. Suddenly they fall to the ground . . . Several 
man-creatures approach them carrying strange-looking instru- 
ments. They examine your sexual organs and teeth. They place 
a net under you and then let it take you in the air with a strange 
device. After all the examinations, they then clamp a strange 
metal object on your ear. Then, just as suddenly as they had 
appeared, they are gone. Eventually, muscle control returns, 
and a poor disoriented creature staggers off into the forest, not 
knowing [whether] what just transpired was a nightmare or a 

• I was sexually abused as a child. In my recovery I have drawn 
many 'space beings' and have felt many times I was being 
overpowered, held down, and the sensation of having left my 
body to float around the room. None of the abductee accounts 
really come as a surprise to someone who has dealt with 
childhood sexual abuse issues . . . Believe me, I would much 
rather have blamed my abuse on a space alien than have to face 
the truth about what happened to me with the adults I was 
supposed to be able to trust. It's been driving me crazy to hear 
some of my friends speak of their memories that imply they 
have been abducted by aliens ... I keep saying to them that 
this is the ultimate victim role in which we as adults have no 
power when these little gray men come to us in our sleep! This 
is not real. The ultimate victim role is the one between an 
abusive parent and a victimized child. 


The City of Grief 

• I don't know if these people are some sort of demons, or if they 
really don't exist. My daughter said she had sensors put in her 
body when she was small. I don't know . . . We keep our doors 
locked and bolted and it really scares me. I don't have the 
money to send her to a good doctor, and she can't work on 
account of all this . . . My daughter is hearing a voice on a tape. 
These go out at night and take kids and sexually abuse them. If 
you don't do as they say, someone in your family will be hurt. 
Who in their right mind would harm little children? They know 
everything that is said in the house . . . Somebody said long, 
long ago somebody put a curse on our family. If somebody did, 
how do you get the curse off? I know all this sounds strange and 
bizarre, but believe me it's scary. 

• How many human females who had the misfortune of being 
raped had the foresight to take from their attacker an ID card, 
a picture of the rapist, or anything else which could be used as 
evidence as to an alleged rape? 

• I for one will be sleeping with my Polaroid from now on, in 
hopes that the next time I'm abducted I can provide the proof 
needed . . . Why should it be up to the abductees to prove 
what's happening? 

• I am living proof of Carl Sagan's claim of the possibility that 
alien abductions occur in the minds of people suffering from 
sleep paralysis. They truly believe it's real. 

• In AD 2001 Starships from the 33 planets of the Interplanetary 
Confederation will land on earth carrying 33,000 Brothers! 
They are extraterrestrial teachers and scientists who will help to 
expand our understanding of interplanetary life, as our own 
earth planet will become the 33rd member of the Confedera- 

• This is a grotesquely challenging arena ... I studied UFOs for 
over 20 years. Finally I became quite disenchanted by the cult 
and the cult fringe groups. 

• I am a 47-year-old grandmother who has been the victim of this 
phenomena since early childhood. I do not - nor have I ever - 
accepted it at face value. I do not - nor have I ever - claimed to 
understand what it is ... I would gladly accept a diagnosis of 
schizophrenia, or some other understood pathology, in 



exchange for this unknown . . . The lack of physical evidence 
is, I fully agree, most frustrating for both victims and research- 
ers. Unfortunately, the retrieval of such evidence is made 
extremely difficult by the manner in which the victims are 
abducted. Often I am removed either in my nightgown (which 
is later removed) or already naked. This condition makes it 
quite impossible to hide a camera ... I have awakened with 
deep gashes, puncture wounds, scooped out tissue, eye dam- 
age, bleeding from the nose and ears, burns, and finger marks 
and bruises which persist for days after the event. I have had all 
of these examined by qualified physicians but none have been 
satisfactorily explained. I am not into self-mutilation; these are 
not stigmata . . . Please be aware that the majority of abduct- 
ees claim to have had no interest in UFOs previously (I am 
one), have no history of childhood abuses (I am one), have no 
desire for publicity or notoriety (I am one), and, in fact, have 
gone to great lengths to avoid acknowledging any involvement 
whatsoever, assuming he or she is experiencing a nervous 
breakdown or other psychological disorder (I am one). Agreed, 
there are many self-proclaimed abductees (and contactees) who 
seek out publicity for monetary gain or to satisfy a need for 
attention. I would be the last to deny these people exist. What I 
do deny is that ALL abductees are imagining or falsifying these 
events to satisfy their own personal agendas. 

• UFOs don't exist. I think that requires an external energy 
source, and this doesn't exist ... I have spoken with Jesus. 

• The commentary on the Parade magazine is very destructive, 
and it enjoys scaring society, I beg you to think more openly 
because our intelligent beings from outer spaces do exist and 
they are our creators ... I too was an abductee. To be honest, 
these dear beings have done me more good than bad. They 
have saved my life . . . The trouble with Earth beings is that 
they want proof, proof, and proof! 

• In the Bible it talks about terrestrial and celestial bodies. This is 
not to say that God is out for sexual abuse on people or that 
we're crazy. 

• I have been strongly telepathic for twenty-seven years now. I 
do not receive - I transmit . . . Waves are coming from outer 


The City of Grief 

space somewhere - beaming through my head and transmitting 
thoughts, words, and images into the heads of anybody within 
range . . . Images will pop into my head that / did not put there, 
and vanish just as suddenly. Dreams are not dreams anymore - 
they are more like Hollywood productions . . . They are smart 
critters and they won't give up . . . Maybe all these little guys 
want to do is communicate ... If I finally go psychotic from all 
this pressure - or have another heart attack - there goes your 
last sure evidence that there is life in space. 

• I think I have found a plausible terrestrial scientific explanation 
for numerous UFO reports. [The writer then discusses ball 
lightning.] If you like my stuff, could you help me get it 

• Sagan refuses to take seriously the witnesses' reports of any- 
thing that twentieth-century science can't explain. 

• Now readers will feel free to treat abductees ... as if they are 
victims of nothing more than an illusion. Abductees suffer the 
same sort of trauma a rape victim endures, and to have their 
experiences rejected by those closest to them is a second 
victimization that leaves them without any support system. 
Encounters with aliens is hard enough to cope with; victims 
need support, not rationalizations. 

• My friend Frankie wants me to bring back an ashtray or a 
matchbook, but I think these visitors are probably much too 
intelligent to smoke. 

• My own feeling is that the alien abduction phenomena is little 
more than a dreamlike sequence vicariously retrieved from 
memory storage. There are no more little green men or flying 
saucers than there are images of those things already stored in 
our brains. 

• When alleged scientists conspire to censor and intimidate those 
who endeavor to offer new insightful hypotheses on conven- 
tional theories . . . they no longer should be considered scien- 
tists, but merely the insecure, self-serving impostors that they 
apparently are ... In the same token, must we all still suppose 
that J. Edgar Hoover was a fine FBI director, rather than the 
homosexual tool of organized crime he was? 

• Your conclusion that large numbers of people in this country, 



perhaps as many as five million, are all victims of an identical 
mass hallucination is asinine. 

• Thanks to the Supreme Court . . . America is now wide open 
for the Eastern pagan religions, under the aegis of Satan and his 
demons, so now we have four-foot gray beings kidnapping 
Earthlings and performing all sorts of experiments on them, 
and are being propagated by those who are educated beyond 
their intelligence and should know better . . . Your question 
[Are We Being Visited?'] is no problem for those who know 
the word of God, and are born-again Christians, and are 
looking for our Redeemer from Heaven, to rapture us out of 
this world of sin, sickness, war, AIDS, crime, abortion, homo- 
sexuality, New-Age-New-World-Order indoctrination, media 
brainwashing, perversion and subversion in government, educa- 
tion, business, finance, society, religion, etc. Those who reject the 
Creator God of the Bible are bound to fall for the kind of fairy 
tales which your article tries to propagate as being truth. 

• If there is no reason to take the matter of alien visitation 
seriously, why is it the most highly classified subject in the US 

• Perhaps some vastly older alien race, from a relatively metal- 
deficient star system, is seeking to prolong its existence by 
taking over a younger, better world and blending with its 

• If I were a betting man, I would give you odds that your 
mailbox will overflow with stories such as I just related. I 
suspect that the psychic [psyche] brings forth these demons and 
angels, lights and circles as a part of our development. They are 
part of our nature. 

• Science has become the 'magic that works'. The UFOlogists are 
heretics to be excommunicated or burned at the stake. 

• [Several readers wrote to say that aliens were demons sent by 
Satan, who is able to cloud our minds. One proposes that the 
insidious Satanic purpose is to make us worried about an alien 
invasion, so that when Jesus and his angels appear over 
Jerusalem we will be frightened rather than glad.] I do hope 
you will not dismiss me as another religious crackpot. I am 
quite normal and well-known in my own little community. 


The City of Grief 

You, sir, are in a position to do one of two things: know about 
the abductions and be covering them up, or feel that because 
you have not been abducted (perhaps they are not interested in 
you) they do not occur. 

A treason suit [was filed] against the President and Congress of 
the United States over a treaty made with aliens in the early 
'40s, who had later shown themselves to be hostile . . . The 
treaty agreed to protect the secrecy of the aliens in return for 
some of their technology [stealth aircraft and fibre optics, 
another correspondent reveals]. 

Some of these beings are capable of intercepting the spiritual 
body when it is traveling. 

I am having communication with an alien being. This communi- 
cation started early in 1992. What else can I say? 
The aliens can stay a step or two ahead of the thinking of 
scientists, and know how to leave insufficient clues behind that 
would satisfy the Sagan types, until society is better prepared 
mentally to face up to it all . . . Perhaps you share the view that 
what's going on with respect to UFOs and aliens, if deemed 
real, would be too traumatic to think about. However . . . 
they've shown themselves until back some 5,000-15,000 years 
or more ago when they were here for extended periods, 
spawning the god/goddess mythology of all cultures. The 
bottom line is that in all that time they haven't taken over 
Earth; they haven't subjected us or wiped us out. 
Homo sapiens was genetically fashioned, created initially to be 
substitute laborers and domestics for the SKY-LORDS 

The explosion that people saw was hydrogen fuel from a star 
cruiser, the landing sight was to be Northern California . . . 
The people on that star cruiser looked like Mr Spock from the 
'Star Trek' TV series. 

Be the reports from the fifteenth century or the twentieth, a 
common thread ties the reports. Individuals who have expe- 
rienced sexual trauma have a great deal of difficulty under- 
standing and coping with the trauma. The terms used to 
describe the [resulting] hallucinations can be incoherent and 



We find we are not as intelligent as we thought although we are 
still stiff-necked and our greatest sin is our pride. And we do 
not even know we are being led to Armageddon. The star 
pin-pointed a single shed, moved across the sky leading wise- 
men to that shed, frightened shepherds with the words fear not. 
Its spotlight was Ezekiel's glory of God, Paul's light that 
temporarily blinded him ... It was the ship in which little men 
took off old Rip, the little men called brownies, fairies, elves, 
these 'creations' of creators given specific duties . . . The God 
People are not yet ready to make themselves known to us. 
First, Armageddon, then, after we KNOW, we can go it alone. 
When we are humbled, when we do not shoot them down, God 
will return. 

The answer to these aliens from outer-space is simple. It comes 
from man. Man using drugs on people. In mental institutions all 
over the country, there are people who have no control over 
their emotions and behaviour. To control these people, they 
are given a variety of antipsychotic drugs . . . If you have been 
drugged often . . . you will begin to have what is called 
'bleedthroughs'. This will be flash images popping into your 
mind of strange-looking people coming up to your face. This 
will begin your search for the answer of what the aliens were 
doing to you. You will be one of the thousands of UFO 
abductees. People will call you crazy. The reason for the 
strange creatures you are seeing is because Thorazine distorts 
the vision of your subconscious mind . . . The writer was 
laughed at, ridiculed, had his life threatened [because of 
presenting these ideas]. 

Hypnosis prepares the mind for the invasion of demons, devils, 
and little gray men. God wants us to be clothed and in our right 
minds . . . Anything your 'little gray men' can do, Christ can 
do better! 

I hope that I never feel so superior that I cannot acknowledge 
that Creation is not limited to myself, but encompasses the 
Universe and all its entities. 

In 1977 an heavenly body spoke to me about an injury to my 
head that happened in 1968. 

[A letter from a man who had twenty-four separate encounters 


The City of Grief 

with] a silent hovering saucer-shaped vehicle [and who has in 
consequence] experienced an ongoing development and ampli- 
fication of such mental functions as clairvoyance, telepathy, 
and the challenging [channelling] of universal life energy for the 
purpose of healing. 

Over the years I have seen and talked to 'ghosts', been visited 
(though not yet abducted) by aliens, seen three-dimensional 
heads floating by my bed, heard knocks on my door . . . These 
experiences seemed as real as life. I have never thought of these 
experiences as anything more than what they certainly are: my 
mind playing tricks on itself* 

A hallucination might account for 99%, but can it ever account 
for 100%? 

UFOs are ... a subject of deep fantasy which has no FAC- 
TUAL BASIS WHATSOEVER. I pray you won't lend your 
credence to a hoax. 

Dr Sagan served on the Air Force committee that evaluated 
government investigations of UFOs, and yet he wants us to 
believe that there's no substantial proof that UFOs exist. Please 
explain why the government needed to be evaluated. 
I'm going to lobby my Representative to try to cancel funds for 
this program of listening for alien signals from space, because it 
would be a waste of money. They're already among us. 
The government spends millions of tax dollars for researching 
UFOs. The SETI project (search for extraterrestrial intelli- 
gence) would be a waste of money if the government truly 
believed UFOs were non-existent. I am personally excited 
about the SETI project because it shows that we're moving in 
the right direction; towards communication with aliens, rather 
than being an unwilling observer. 

The succubi, which I identified more as astral rape, occurred 
from 78-'92. It was hard on a moral and seriously practicing 
Catholic, demoralizing, dehumanizing, and quite literally had 
me worried by the physical aftermath of disease effects. 
The space people are coming! They hope to remove whom they 
can, especially children who are the 'seedlings' of the next 

From a letter received by The Skeptical Inquirer; courtesy, Kendrick Frazier. 



humanity generation along with their cooperating parents, 
grandparents and other adults, to safety before the upcoming 
major sunspot/planetary peak, which is just over the horizon. 
The Space Ship is in sight every night and close in to assist us 
when the Major Solar Flares do, before turbulence starts in the 
atmosphere. The Polar Shift is due now as it moves to its new 
position for the Aquarian Age . . . [The authors also inform 
me that they are] working with the Ashtar Command, where 
Jesus Christ meets with those aboard for instructions. Many 
dignitaries are present, including archangels Michael and 

• I have extensive experience in therapeutic energy work, which 
involves removing grid patterns, negative memory cords, and 
alien implants from human bodies and their surrounding energy 
fields. My work is primarily utilized as an adjunctive aide to 
psychotherapy. My clients range from businessmen, home- 
makers, professional artists, therapists, and children . . . The 
alien energy is very fluid, both within the body and after it is 
removed, and must be contained as soon as possible. The 
energy grids are most often locked around the heart or in a 
triangular formation across the shoulders. 

• I don't know how, after such an experience, I could have just 
turned over and gone back to sleep. 

• I believe in happy endings. I always have. Once you have seen a 
figure as tall as the room - with golden hair, and shining like a 
lighted Christmas tree, lifting up the little child beside us, how 
could you not? I understood the message the figure was 
relaying - to the little child - and it was me. We had always 
talked together. How else could life be bearable - in a place 
like this? . . . Unfamiliar mental states? You put your finger 
right on it. 

• Who is really in charge of this planet? 



The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion 
from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which 
may be called 'sciences as one would'. For what a man had 
rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects 
difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, 
because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from 
superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; 
things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion 
of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and 
sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and 
infect the understanding. 

Francis Bacon, 
Novum Organon (1620) 

My parents died years ago. I was very close to them. I still miss 
them terribly. I know I always will. I long to believe that 
their essence, their personalities, what I loved so much about 
them, are - really and truly - still in existence somewhere. I 
wouldn't ask very much, just five or ten minutes a year, say, to tell 
them about their grandchildren, to catch them up on the latest 
news, to remind them that I love them. There's a part of me - no 
matter how childish it sounds - that wonders how they are. 'Is 
everything all right?' I want to ask. The last words I found myself 
saying to my father, at the moment of his death, were 'Take care'. 



Sometimes I dream that I'm talking to my parents, and sud- 
denly - still immersed in the dreamwork - I'm seized by the 
overpowering realization that they didn't really die, that it's all 
been some kind of horrible mistake. Why, here they are, alive and 
well, my father making wry jokes, my mother earnestly advising 
me to wear a muffler because the weather is chilly. When I wake 
up I go through an abbreviated process of mourning all over 
again. Plainly, there's something within me that's ready to believe 
in life after death. And it's not the least bit interested in whether 
there's any sober evidence for it. 

So I don't guffaw at the woman who visits her husband's grave 
and chats him up every now and then, maybe on the anniversary 
of his death. It's not hard to understand. And if I have difficulties 
with the ontological status of who she's talking to, that's all right. 
That's not what this is about. This is about humans being human. 
More than a third of American adults believe that on some level 
they've made contact with the dead. The number seems to have 
jumped by 15 per cent between 1977 and 1988. A quarter of 
Americans believe in reincarnation. 

But that doesn't mean I'd be willing to accept the pretensions of 
a 'medium', who claims to channel the spirits of the dear 
departed, when I'm aware the practice is rife with fraud. I know 
how much I want to believe that my parents have just abandoned 
the husks of their bodies, like insects or snakes moulting, and 
gone somewhere else. I understand that those very feelings might 
make me easy prey even for an unclever con, or for normal people 
unfamiliar with their unconscious minds, or for those suffering 
from a dissociative psychiatric disorder. Reluctantly, I rouse some 
reserves of scepticism. 

How is it, I ask myself, that channellers never give us verifiable 
information otherwise unavailable? Why does Alexander the 
Great never tell us about the exact location of his tomb, Fermat 
about his Last Theorem, James Wilkes Booth about the Lincoln 
assassination conspiracy, Hermann Goering about the Reichstag 
fire? Why don't Sophocles, Democritus and Aristarchus dictate 
their lost books? Don't they wish future generations to have 
access to their masterpieces? 

If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I'd 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real, scientific data, 
not mere anecdote. As with the face on Mars and alien abduc- 
tions, better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. 
And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more 
comforting than the fantasy. 

The fundamental premise of 'channelling', spiritualism, and 
other forms of necromancy is that when we die we don't. Not 
exactly. Some thinking, feeling, and remembering part of us 
continues. That whatever-it-is - a soul or spirit, neither matter nor 
energy, but something else - can, we are told, re-enter the bodies 
of human and other beings in the future, and so death loses much 
of its sting. What's more, we have an opportunity, if the spiritual- 
ist or channelling contentions are true, to make contact with loved 
ones who have died. 

J.Z. Knight of the State of Washington claims to be in touch 
with a 35,000-year-old somebody called 'Ramtha'. He speaks 
English very well, using Knight's tongue, lips and vocal cords, 
producing what sounds to me to be an accent from the Indian Raj. 
Since most people know how to talk, and many - from children or 
professional actors - have a repertoire of voices at their command, 
the simplest hypothesis is that Ms Knight makes 'Ramtha' speak 
all by herself, and that she has no contact with disembodied 
entities from the Pleistocene Ice Age. If there's evidence to the 
contrary, I'd love to hear it. It would be considerably more 
impressive if Ramtha could speak by himself, without the assist- 
ance of Ms Knight's mouth. Failing that, how might we test the 
claim? (The actress Shirley MacLaine attests that Ramtha was her 
brother in Atlantis, but that's another story.) 

Suppose Ramtha were available for questioning. Could we 
verify whether he is who he says he is? How does he know that he 
lived 35,000 years ago, even approximately? What calendar does 
he employ? Who is keeping track of the intervening millennia? 
Thirty-five thousand plus or minus what? What were things like 
35,000 years ago? Either Ramtha really is 35,000 years old, in 
which case we discover something about that period, or he's a 
phoney and he'll (or rather she'll) slip up. 

Where did Ramtha live? (I know he speaks English with an 
Indian accent, but where 35,000 years ago did they do that?) What 



was the climate? What did Ramtha eat? (Archaeologists know 
something about what people ate back then.) What were the 
indigenous languages and social structure? Who else did Ramtha 
live with - wife, wives, children, grandchildren? What was the life 
cycle, the infant mortality rate, the life expectancy? Did they have 
birth control? What clothes did they wear? How were the clothes 
manufactured? What were the most dangerous predators? Hunt- 
ing and fishing implements and strategies? Weapons? Endemic 
sexism? Xenophobia and ethnocentrism? And if Ramtha came 
from the 'high civilization' of Atlantis, where are the linguistic, 
technological, historical and other details? What was their writing 
like? Tell us. Instead, all we are offered are banal homilies. 

Here, to take another example, is a set of information chan- 
nelled not from an ancient dead person, but from unknown 
non-human entities who make crop circles, as recorded by the 
journalist Jim Schnabel: 

We are so anxious at this sinful nation spreading lies about us. 
We do not come in machines, we do not land on your earth in 
machines . . . We come like the wind. We are Life Force. 
Life Force from the ground . . . Come here . . . We are but a 
breath away ... a breath away ... we are not a million 
miles away ... a Life Force that is larger than the energies in 
your body. But we meet at a higher level of life . . . We need 
no name. We are parallel to your world, alongside your 
world . . . The walls are broken. Two men will rise from the 
past . . . the great bear . . . the world will be at peace. 

People pay attention to these puerile marvels mainly because they 
promise something like old-time religion, but especially life after 
death, even life eternal. 

A very different prospect for something like eternal life was 
once proposed by the versatile British scientist J.B.S. Haldane, 
who was, among many other things, one of the founders of 
population genetics. Haldane imagined a far future when the stars 
have darkened and space is mainly filled with a cold, thin gas. 
Nevertheless, if we wait long enough statistical fluctuations in the 
density of this gas will occur. Over immense periods of time the 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

fluctuations will be sufficient to reconstitute a Universe something 
like our own. If the Universe is infinitely old, there will be an 
infinite number of such reconstitutions, Haldane pointed out. 

So in an infinitely old universe with an infinite number of 
appearances of galaxies, stars, planets and life, an identical Earth 
must reappear on which you and all your loved ones will be 
reunited. I'll be able to see my parents again and introduce them 
to the grandchildren they never knew. And all this will happen not 
once, but an infinite number of times. 

But in this reflection I have underestimated what infinity 
means. In Haldane's picture, there will be universes, indeed an 
infinite number of them, in which our brains will have full 
recollection of many previous rounds. Satisfaction is at hand - 
tempered, though, by the thought of all those other universes 
which will also come into existence (again, not once but an infinite 
number of times) with tragedies and horrors vastly outstripping 
anything I've experienced this turn. 

The Consolation of Haldane depends, though, on what kind of 
universe we live in, and maybe on such arcana as whether there's 
enough matter eventually to reverse the expansion of the uni- 
verse, and the character of vacuum fluctuations. Those with a 
deep longing for life after death might, it seems, devote them- 
selves to cosmology, quantum gravity, elementary particle phys- 
ics, and, especially, transfinite arithmetic. 

Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the early Church, in his 
Exhortations to the Greeks (written around the year 190) dis- 
missed pagan beliefs in words that might today seem a little ironic: 

Far indeed are we from allowing grown men to listen to such 
tales. Even to our own children, when they are crying their 
heart out, as the saying goes, we are not in the habit of telling 
fabulous stories to soothe them. 

In our time we have less severe standards. We tell children about 
Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy for reasons we 
think emotionally sound, but then disabuse them of these myths 
before they're grown. Why retract? Because their well-being as 



adults depends on them knowing the world as it really is. We worry, 
and for good reason, about adults who still believe in Santa Claus. 

On doctrinaire religions, 'Men dare not avow, even to their own 
hearts', wrote the philosopher David Hume, 

the doubts which they entertain on such subjects. They make 
a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real 
infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and the most posi- 
tive bigotry. 

This infidelity has profound moral consequences, as the American 
revolutionary Tom Paine wrote in The Age of Reason: 

Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it 
consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It 
is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so 
express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When 
man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his 
mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does 
not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of 
every other crime. 

T.H. Huxley's formulation was 

The foundation of morality is to . . . give up pretending to 
believe that for which there is no evidence, and repeating 
unintelligible propositions about things beyond the possibili- 
ties of knowledge. 

Clement, Hume, Paine and Huxley were all talking about reli- 
gion. But much of what they wrote has more general applications 
- for example to the pervasive background importunings of our 
commercial civilization: there is a class of aspirin commercials in 
which actors pretending to be doctors reveal the competing 
product to have only so much of the painkilling ingredient that 
doctors recommend most - they don't tell you what the mysterious 
ingredient is. Whereas their product has a dramatically larger 
amount (1.2 to 2 times more per tablet). So buy their product. But 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

why not just take two of the competing tablets? Or consider the 
analgesic that works better than the 'regular-strength' product of 
the competition. Why not then take the 'extra-strength' competitive 
product? And of course they do not tell us of the more than a 
thousand deaths each year in the United States from the use of 
aspirin, or the apparent 5,000 annual cases of kidney failure from 
the use of acetaminophen, of which the best-selling brand is 
Tylenol. (This, however, may represent a case of correlation without 
causation.) Or who cares which breakfast cereal has more vitamins 
when we can take a vitamin pill with breakfast? Likewise, why 
should it matter whether an antacid contains calcium if the calcium 
is for nutrition and irrelevant for gastritis? Commercial culture is 
full of similar misdirections and evasions at the expense of the 
consumer. You're not supposed to ask. Don't think. Buy. 

Paid product endorsements, especially by real or purported 
experts, constitute a steady rainfall of deception. They betray 
contempt for the intelligence of their customers. They introduce an 
insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectiv- 
ity. Today there are even commercials in which real scientists, some 
of considerable distinction, shill for corporations. They teach that 
scientists too will lie for money. As Tom Paine warned, inuring us to 
lies lays the groundwork for many other evils. 

I have in front of me as I write the programme of one of the 
annual Whole Life Expos, New Age expositions held in San 
Francisco. Typically, tens of thousands of people attend. Highly 
questionable experts tout highly questionable products. Here are 
some of the presentations: 'How Trapped Blood Proteins Produce 
Pain and Suffering'. 'Crystals, Are They Talismans or Stones?' (I 
have an opinion myself.) It continues: As a crystal focuses sound 
and light waves for radio and television' - this is a vapid misunder- 
standing of how radio and television work - 'so may it amplify 
spiritual vibrations for the attuned human'. Or here's one: 'Return 
of the Goddess, a Presentational Ritual'. Another: 'Synchronicity, 
the Recognition Experience'. That one is given by 'Brother 
Charles'. Or, on the next page, 'You, Saint-Germain, and Healing 
Through the Violet Flame'. It goes on and on, with plenty of ads 
about 'opportunities' - running the short gamut from the dubious 
to the spurious - that are available at the Whole Life Expo. 



Distraught cancer victims make pilgrimages to the Philippines, 
where 'psychic surgeons', having palmed bits of chicken liver or 
goat heart, pretend to reach into the patient's innards and 
withdraw the diseased tissue, which is then triumphantly dis- 
played. Leaders of western democracies regularly consult astrolo- 
gers and mystics before making decisions of state. Under public 
pressure for results, police with an unsolved murder or a missing 
body on their hands consult ESP 'experts' (who never guess better 
than expected by common sense, but the police, the ESPers say, 
keep calling). A clairvoyance gap with adversary nations is 
announced, and the Central Intelligence Agency, under Congres- 
sional prodding, spends tax money to find out whether submarines 
in the ocean depths can be located by thinking hard at them. A 
'psychic', using pendulums over maps and dowsing rods in air- 
planes, purports to find new mineral deposits; an Australian 
mining company pays him top dollars up front, none of it 
returnable in the event of failure, and a share in the exploitation 
of ores in the event of success. Nothing is discovered. Statues of 
Jesus or murals of Mary are spotted with moisture, and thousands 
of kind-hearted people convince themselves that they have wit- 
nessed a miracle. 

These are all cases of proved or presumptive baloney. A 
deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, some- 
times with cynical premeditation. Usually the victim is caught up 
in a powerful emotion - wonder, fear, greed, grief. Credulous 
acceptance of baloney can cost you money; that's what P.T. 
Barnum meant when he said, 'There's a sucker born every 
minute'. But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when 
governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, 
the results can be catastrophic, however sympathetic we may be to 
those who have bought the baloney. 

In science we may start with experimental results, data, obser- 
vations, measurements, 'facts'. We invent, if we can, a rich array 
of possible explanations and systematically confront each explana- 
tion with the facts. In the course of their training, scientists are 
equipped with a baloney detection kit. The kit is brought out as a 
matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for considera- 
tion. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you're so 
inclined, if you don't want to buy baloney even when it's 
reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; 
there's a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method. 

What's in the kit? Tools for sceptical thinking. 

What sceptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct, 
and to understand, a reasoned argument and, especially impor- 
tant, to recognize a fallacious or fraudulent argument. The 
question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of 
a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the 
premises or starting point and whether that premise is true. 

Among the tools: 

• Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of 
the 'facts'. 

• Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledge- 
able proponents of all points of view. 

• Arguments from authority carry little weight - 'authorities' 
have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the 
future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are 
no authorities; at most, there are experts. 

• Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be 
explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be 
explained. Then think of tests by which you might systemati- 
cally disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the 
hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection 
among 'multiple working hypotheses', has a much better 
chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with 
the first idea that caught your fancy.* 

• Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's 
yours. It's only a way-station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask 
yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the 

• This is a problem that affects jury trials. Retrospective studies show that some 
jurors make up their minds very early - perhaps during opening arguments - 
and then retain the evidence that seems to support their initial impressions and 
reject the contrary evidence. The method of alternative working hypotheses is 
not running in their heads. 



alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you 
don't, others will. 

• Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, 
some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better 
able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is 
vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course 
there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we 
are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging. 

• If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work 
(including the premise) - not just most of them. 

• Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when 
faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to 
choose the simpler. 

• Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, 
falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not 
worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and 
everything in it is just an elementary particle - an electron, say 
- in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire 
information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapa- 
ble of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. 
Inveterate sceptics must be given the chance to follow your 
reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the 
same result. 

The reliance on carefully designed and controlled experiments is 
key, as I tried to stress earlier. We will not learn much from mere 
contemplation. It is tempting to rest content with the first 
candidate explanation we can think of. One is much better than 
none. But what happens if we can invent several? How do we 
decide among them? We don't. We let experiment do it. Francis 
Bacon provided a classic reason: 

Argumentation cannot suffice for the discovery of new work, 
since the subtlety of Nature is greater many times than the 
subtlety of argument. 

Control experiments are essential. If, for example, a new medi- 
cine is alleged to cure a disease 20 per cent of the time, we must 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

make sure that a control population, taking a dummy sugar pill 
which as far as the subjects know might be the new drug, does not 
also experience spontaneous remission of the disease 20 per cent 
of the time. 

Variables must be separated. Suppose you're seasick, and given 
both an acupressure bracelet and 50 milligrams of meclizine. You 
find the unpleasantness vanishes. What did it - the bracelet or the 
pill? You can tell only if you take the one without the other next 
time you're seasick. Now imagine that you're not so dedicated to 
science as to be willing to be seasick. Then you won't separate the 
variables. You'll take both remedies again. You've achieved the 
desired practical result; further knowledge, you might say, is not 
worth the discomfort of attaining it. 

Often the experiment must be done 'double-blind', so that 
those hoping for a certain finding are not in the potentially 
compromising position of evaluating the results. In testing a 
new medicine, for example, you might want the physicians who 
determine which patients' symptoms are relieved not to know 
which patients have been given the new drug. The knowledge 
might influence their decision, even if only unconsciously. 
Instead the list of those who experienced remission of symp- 
toms can be compared with the list of those who got the new 
drug, each independently ascertained. Then you can determine 
what correlation exists. Or in conducting a police line-up or 
photo identification, the officer in charge should not know who 
the prime suspect is, so as not consciously or unconsciously to 
influence the witness. 

In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to 
knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us 
what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and 
perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can 
be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so 
often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions. Among 
these fallacies are: 

• Ad hominem - Latin for 'to the man', attacking the arguer and 
not the argument (e.g., the Reverend Dr Smith is a known 



Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not 
be taken seriously). 

• Argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon 
should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war 
in Southeast Asia - but because it was secret, there was no way 
for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument 
amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, 
as it turned out). 

• Argument from adverse consequences (e.g., a God meting out 
punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society 
would be much more lawless and dangerous - perhaps even 
ungovernable.* Or: the defendant in a widely publicized murder 
trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement 

for other men to murder their wives). 

• Appeal to ignorance - the claim that whatever has not been 
proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., there is no 
compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; 
therefore UFOs exist - and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the 
Universe. Or: there may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but 
not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so 
we're still central to the Universe). This impatience with ambigu- 
ity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not 
evidence of absence. 

• Special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetori- 
cal trouble (e.g., how can a merciful God condemn future 
generations to unending torment because, against orders, one 
woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you 
don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: how can 
there be an equally godlike Father, Son and Holy Ghost in the 
same Person? Special plead: you don't understand the Divine 
Mystery of the Trinity. Or: how could God permit the followers 
of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - each in their own way 

• A more cynical formulation by the Roman historian Polybius: Since the masses 
of the people are inconstant, full of unruly desires, passionate, and reckless of 
consequences, they must be filled with fears to keep them in order. The 
ancients did well, therefore, to invent gods, and the belief in punishment after 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion - to 
have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: you 
don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in 
mysterious ways). 

• Begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., we 
must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But 
does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is 
imposed? Or: the stock market fell yesterday because of a 
technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors. But is there 
any independent evidence for the causal role of 'adjustment* 
and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this 
purported explanation?). 

• Observational selection, also called the enumeration of favourable 
circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, 
counting the hits and forgetting the misses* (e.g., a state boasts of 
the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers). 

• Statistics of small numbers - a close relative of observational 
selection (e.g., 'they say 1 out of 5 people is Chinese. How is this 
possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. 

Yours truly. ' Or. 'I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't 
lose. '). 

• My favourite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, 
newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons 
project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War Two with US flag 

So-and-so is a great general, he was told. 

'What is the definition of a great general?' Fermi characteristically asked. 
I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.' 
'How many?' 

After some back and forth, they settled on five. 

'What fraction of American generals are great?' 

After some more back and forth, they settled on a few per cent. 

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that 
all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of 
chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two 
battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32, which is about 
three per cent. You would expect a few per cent of American generals to win five 
consecutive battles, purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive 



• Misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President 
Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on 
discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average 

• Inconsistency (e.g., prudently plan for the worst of which a 
potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scien- 
tific projections on environmental dangers because they're not 
'proved'. Or: attribute the declining life expectancy in the former 
Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but 
never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States 
(now highest in the major industrial nations) to the failures of 
capitalism. Or: consider it reasonable for the Universe to 
continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the 
possibility that it has infinite duration into the past). 

• Non sequitur - Latin for 'it doesn't follow' (e.g., our nation will 
prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends 
this to be true; the German formulation was 'Gott mit uns'). 
Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply 
failed to recognize alternative possibilities. 

• Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - Latin for 'it happened after, so it 
was caused by' (e.g., Jamie Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of 
Manila: 'I know of... a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she 
takes [contraceptive] pills.' Or: before women got the vote, there 
were no nuclear weapons). 

• Meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible 
force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as 

an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and 
vice versa). 

• Excluded middle, or false dichotomy - considering only the two 
extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., 
'sure, take his side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong. ' 
Or: 'either you love your country or you hate it' Or: 'if you're 
not part of the solution, you're part of the problem'). 

• Short-term v. long-term - a subset of the excluded middle, but 
so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., we 
can't afford programmes to feed malnourished children and 
educate preschool kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on 
the streets. Or: why explore space or pursue fundamental science 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

when we have so huge a budget deficit?). 

• Slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., if we allow 
abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to 
prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: if the 
state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be 
telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of 

• Confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., a survey shows 
that more college graduates are homosexual than those with 
lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: 
Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of 
the planet Uranus; therefore - despite the absence of any such 
correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter - the 
latter causes the former. * 

• Straw man - caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack 
(e.g., scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by 
chance - a formulation that wilfully ignores the central Darwin- 
ian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and 
discarding what doesn't. Or - this is also a short-term/long-term 
fallacy - environmentalists care more for snail darters and 
spotted owls than they do for people). 

• Suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., an amazingly accurate 
and widely quoted 'prophecy' of the assassination attempt on 
President Reagan is shown on television; but - an important detail 
- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: these government 
abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette 
without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a 
revolution in which far more people are killed than under the 

• Or: children who watch violent TV programmes tend to be more violent when 
they grow up. But did the TV cause the violence, or do violent children 
preferentially enjoy watching violent programmes? Very likely both are true. 
Commercial defenders of TV violence argue that anyone can distinguish 
between television and reality. But Saturday morning children's programmes 
now average 25 acts of violence per hour. At the very least this desensitizes 
young children to aggression and random cruelty. And if impressionable adults 
can have false memories implanted in their brains, what are we implanting in 
our children when we expose them to some 100,000 acts of violence before they 
graduate from elementary school? 



previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions 
suggest? Are all possible revolutions against oppressive regimes 
desirable and in the interests of the people?). 
• Weasel words (e.g., the separation of powers of the US 
Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a 
war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, 
Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct 
of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting them- 
selves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may there- 
fore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and 
calling the wars something else - 'police actions', 'armed 
incursions', 'protective reaction strikes', 'pacification', 'safe- 
guarding American interests', and a wide variety of 'opera- 
tions', such as 'Operation Just Cause'. Euphemisms for war are 
one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political 
purposes. Talleyrand said, An important art of politicians is to 
find new names for institutions which under old names have 
become odious to the public'). 

Knowing the existence of such logical and rhetorical fallacies 
rounds out our toolkit. Like all tools, the baloney detection kit 
can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote 
alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the 
difference in the world, not least in evaluating our own arguments 
before we present them to others. 

The American tobacco industry grosses some $50 billion per year. 
There is a statistical correlation between smoking and cancer, the 
tobacco industry admits, but not, they say, a causal relation. A 
logical fallacy, they imply, is being committed. What might this 
mean? Maybe people with hereditary propensities for cancer also 
have hereditary propensities to take addictive drugs - so cancer 
and smoking might be correlated, but the cancer would not be 
caused by the smoking. Increasingly far-fetched connections of 
this sort can be contrived. This is exactly one of the reasons 
science insists on control experiments. 

Suppose you paint the backs of large numbers of mice with 
cigarette tar, and also follow the health of large numbers of nearly 


The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

identical mice that have not been painted. If the former get 
cancer and the latter do not, you can be pretty sure that the 
correlation is causal. Inhale tobacco smoke, and the chance of 
getting cancer goes up; don't inhale, and the rate stays at the 
background level. Likewise for emphysema, bronchitis and 
cardiovascular diseases. 

When the first work was published in the scientific literature in 
1953 showing that the substances in cigarette smoke when painted 
on the backs of rodents produce malignancies, the response of the 
six major tobacco companies was to initiate a public relations 
campaign to impugn the research, sponsored by the Sloan Ketter- 
ing Foundation. This is similar to what the Du Pont Corporation 
did when the first research was published in 1974 showing that 
their Freon product attacks the protective ozone layer. There are 
many other examples. 

You might think that before they denounce unwelcome 
research findings, major corporations would devote their consid- 
erable resources to checking out the safety of the products they 
propose to manufacture. And if they missed something, if inde- 
pendent scientists suggest a hazard, why would the companies 
protest? Would they rather kill people than lose profits? If, in an 
uncertain world, an error must be made, shouldn't it be biased 
toward protecting customers and the public? And, incidentally, 
what do these cases say about the ability of the free enterprise 
system to police itself? Aren't these instances where government 
intrusion is in the public interest? 

A 1971 internal report of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco 
Corporation lists as a corporate objective 'to set aside in the minds 
of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung 
cancer and other diseases; a conviction based on fanatical assump- 
tions, fallacious rumours, unsupported claims and the unscientific 
statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists'. 
They complain of 

the incredible, unprecedented and nefarious attack against 
the cigarette, constituting the greatest libel and slander 
ever perpetrated against any product in the history of free 
enterprise; a criminal libel of such major proportions and 



implications that one wonders how such a crusade of 
calumny can be reconciled under the Constitution can be so 
flouted and violated [sic]. 

This rhetoric is only slightly more inflamed than what the tobacco 
industry has from time to time uttered for public consumption. 

There are many brands of cigarettes that advertise low 'tar' (ten 
milligrams or less per cigarette). Why is this a virtue? Because it is 
the refractory tars in which polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and 
some other carcinogens are concentrated. Aren't the low tar ads a 
tacit admission by the tobacco companies that cigarettes indeed 
cause cancer? 

Healthy Buildings International is a for-profit organization, 
recipient of millions of dollars over the years from the tobacco 
industry. It performs research on second-hand smoke, and testi- 
fies for the tobacco companies. In 1994, three of its technicians 
complained that senior executives had faked data on inhalable 
cigarette particles in the air. In every case, the invented or 
'corrected' data made tobacco smoke seem safer than the techni- 
cians' measurements had indicated. Do corporate research 
departments or outside research contractors ever find a product to 
be more dangerous than the tobacco corporation has publicly 
declared? If they do, is their employment continued? 

Tobacco is addictive; by many criteria more so than heroin and 
cocaine. There was a reason people would, as the 1940s ad put it, 
'walk a mile for a Camel'. More people have died of tobacco than 
in all of World War II. According to the World Health Organiza- 
tion, smoking kills three million people every year worldwide. 
This will rise to ten million annual deaths by 2020, in part because 
of a massive advertising campaign to portray smoking as advanced 
and fashionable to young women in the developing world. Part of 
the success of the tobacco industry in purveying this brew of 
addictive poisons can be attributed to widespread unfamiliarity 
with baloney detection, critical thinking and scientific method. 
Gullibility kills. 



Obsessed with Reality 

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He 
knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; 
that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had 
needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that 
possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon 
his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps 
he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, 
even though this should put him to great expense. Before 
the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these 
melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone 
safely through so many voyages and weathered so many 
storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come 
safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in 
Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these 
unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek 
for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind 
all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and 
contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and 
comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe 
and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, 
and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their 
strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance 
money when she went down in mid ocean and told no tales. 
What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily 



guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did 
sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the 
sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because 
he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before 
him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in 
patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts . . . 

William K. Clifford, 
The Ethics of Belief (1874) 

At the borders of science - and sometimes as a carry-over from 
prescientific thinking - lurks a range of ideas that are 
appealing, or at least modestly mind-boggling, but that have not 
been conscientiously worked over with a baloney detection kit, at 
least by their advocates: the notion, say, that the Earth's surface is 
on the inside, not the outside, of a sphere; or claims that you can 
levitate yourself by meditating and that ballet dancers and basket- 
ball players routinely get up so high by levitating; or the proposi- 
tion that I have something called a soul, made not of matter or 
energy, but of something else for which there is no other evidence, 
and which after my death might return to animate a cow or a 

Typical offerings of pseudoscience and superstition - this is 
merely a representative, not a comprehensive list - are astrology; 
the Bermuda Triangle; 'Big Foot' and the Loch Ness monster; 
ghosts; the 'evil eye'; multi-coloured halo-like 'auras' said to 
surround the heads of everyone (with colour personalized); 
extrasensory perception (ESP), such as telepathy, precognition, 
telekinesis, and 'remote viewing' of distant places; the belief that 
13 is an 'unlucky' number (because of which many no-nonsense 
office buildings and hotels in America pass directly from the 
twelfth to the fourteenth floors - why take chances?); bleeding 
statues; the conviction that carrying the severed foot of a rabbit 
around with you brings good luck; divining rods, dowsing and 
water witching; 'facilitated communication' in autism; the belief 
that razor blades stay sharper when kept inside small cardboard 
pyramids, and other tenets of 'pyramidology'; phone calls (none 
of them collect) from the dead; the prophecies of Nostradamus; 
the alleged discovery that untrained flatworms can learn a task by 


Obsessed with Reality 

eating the ground-up remains of other, better educated flatworms; 
the notion that more crimes are committed when the Moon is full; 
palmistry; numerology; polygraphy; comets, tea leaves and 'mon- 
strous' births as prodigies of future events (plus the divinations 
fashionable in earlier epochs, accomplished by viewing entrails, 
smoke, the shapes of flames, shadows and excrement; listening to 
gurgling stomachs, and even, for a brief period, examining tables 
of logarithms); 'photography' of past events, such as the crucifix- 
ion of Jesus; a Russian elephant that speaks fluently; 'sensitives' 
who, when carelessly blindfolded, read books with their finger- 
tips; Edgar Cayce (who predicted that in the 1960s the 'lost' 
continent of Atlantis would 'rise') and other 'prophets', sleeping 
and awake; diet quackery; out-of-body (e.g., near-death) experi- 
ences interpreted as real events in the external world; faith-healer 
fraud; Ouija boards; the emotional lives of geraniums, uncovered 
by intrepid use of a 'lie detector'; water remembering what 
molecules used to be dissolved in it; telling character from facial 
features or bumps on the head; the 'hundredth monkey' confusion 
and other claims that whatever a small fraction of us wants to be 
true really is true; human beings spontaneously bursting into 
flame and being burned to a crisp; 3-cycle biorhythms; perpetual 
motion machines, promising unlimited supplies of energy (but all 
of which, for one reason or another, are withheld from close 
examination by sceptics); the systematically inept predictions of 
Jeane Dixon (who 'predicted' a 1953 Soviet invasion of Iran and in 
1965 that the USSR would beat the US to put the first human on 
the Moon*) and other professional 'psychics'; the Jehovah's 
Witnesses' prediction that the world would end in 1917, and many 
similar prophecies; dianetics and Scientology; Carlos Castaneda 
and 'sorcery'; claims of finding the remains of Noah's Ark; the 
Amityville Horror' and other hauntings; and accounts of a small 
brontosaurus crashing through the rain forests of the Congo 
Republic of our time. [An in-depth discussion of many such claims 
can be found in Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Gordon Stein, 

* Violating the rules for 'Oraclers and Wizards' given by Thomas Ady in 1656: 
'In doubtful things, they gave doubtful answers . . . Where were more certain 
probabilities, there they gave more certain answers.' 



ed., Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1996.] 

Many of these doctrines are rejected out of hand by fundamen- 
talist Christians and Jews because the Bible so enjoins. Deuter- 
onomy (xviii, 10, 11) reads (in the King James translation): 

There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his 
son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth 
divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a 
witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a 
wizard, or a necromancer. 

Astrology, channelling, Ouija boards, predicting the future and 
much else is forbidden. The author of Deuteronomy does not 
argue that such practices fail to deliver what they promise. But 
they are 'abominations', perhaps suitable for other nations, but 
not for the followers of God. And even the Apostle Paul, so 
credulous on so many matters, counsels us to 'prove all things'. 

The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides 
goes further than Deuteronomy, in that he makes explicit that 
these pseudosciences don't work: 

It is forbidden to engage in astrology, to utilize charms, to 
whisper incantations . . . All of these practices are nothing 
more than lies and deceptions used by ancient pagan peoples 
to deceive the masses and lead them astray . . . Wise and 
intelligent people know better. [From the Mishneh Torah, 
Avodah Zara, Chapter 11.] 

Some claims are hard to test - for example, if an expedition fails to 
find the ghost or the brontosaurus, that doesn't mean it doesn't 
exist. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Others are 
easier - for example, flatworm cannibalistic learning or the 
announcement that colonies of bacteria subjected to an antibiotic 
or an agar dish thrive when their prosperity is prayed for 
(compared to control bacteria unredeemed by prayer). A few - 
for example, perpetual motion machines - can be excluded on 
grounds of fundamental physics. Except for them, it's not that we 
know before examining the evidence that the notions are false; 


Obsessed with Reality 

stranger things are routinely incorporated into the corpus of 

The question, as always, is how good is the evidence? The 
burden of proof surely rests on the shoulders of those who 
advance such claims. Revealingly, some proponents hold that 
scepticism is a liability, that true science is inquiry without 
scepticism. They are perhaps halfway there. But halfway doesn't 
do it. 

Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore describes one of the steps in 
her transformation to a more sceptical attitude on 'psychic' 

A mother and daughter from Scotland asserted they could 
pick up images from each other's minds. They chose to use 
playing cards for the tests because that is what they used at 
home. I let them choose the room in which they would be 
tested and insured that there was no normal way for the 
'receiver' to see the cards. They failed. They could not get 
more right than chance predicted and they were terribly 
disappointed. They had honestly believed they could do it 
and I began to see how easy it was to be fooled by your own 
desire to believe. 

I had similar experiences with several dowsers, children 
who claimed they could move objects psychokinetically, and 
several who said they had telepathic powers. They all failed. 
Even now I have a five-digit number, a word, and a small 
object in my kitchen at home. The place and items were 
chosen by a young man who intends to 'see' them while 
travelling out of his body. They have been there (though 
regularly changed) for three years. So far, though, he has had 
no success. 

'Telepathy' literally means to feel at a distance, just as 'telephone' 
is to hear at a distance and 'television' is to see at a distance. The 
word suggests the communication not of thoughts but of feelings, 
emotions. Around a quarter of all Americans believe they've 
experienced something like telepathy. People who know each 
other very well, who live together, who are practised in one 



another's feeling tones, associations and thinking styles can often 
anticipate what the partner will say. This is merely the usual five 
senses plus human empathy, sensitivity and intelligence in opera- 
tion. It may feel extrasensory, but it's not at all what's intended by 
the word 'telepathy'. If something like this were ever conclusively 
demonstrated, it would, I think, have discernible physical causes - 
perhaps electrical currents in the brain. Pseudoscience, rightly or 
wrongly labelled, is by no means the same thing as the supernatural, 
which is by definition something somehow outside of Nature. 

It is barely possible that a few of these paranormal claims might 
one day be verified by solid scientific data. But it would be foolish 
to accept any of them without adequate evidence. In the spirit of 
garage dragons, it is much better, for those claims not already 
disproved or adequately explained, to contain our impatience, to 
nurture a tolerance for ambiguity, and to await - or, much better, 
to seek - supporting or discontinuing evidence. 

In a far-off land in the South Seas, the word went out about a wise 
man, a healer, an embodied spirit. He could speak across time. He 
was an Ascended Master. He was coming, they said. He was 
coming . . . 

In 1988, Australian newspapers, magazines and television sta- 
tions began to receive the good news via press kits and videotape. 
One broadside read: 


Those who have seen it will never forget. The brilliant young 
artist who has been talking to them suddenly seems to falter, 
his pulse slows dangerously and virtually stops at the point of 
death. The qualified medical attendant, who has been 
assigned to keep constant watch, is about to sound the alarm. 

But then, with a heart-stirring burst, the pulse is felt again - 
faster and stronger than ever before. The life force clearly has 
returned to the body - but the entity inside that body is no 
longer Jose Luis Alvarez, the 19-year-old whose unique 
painted ceramics are featured in some of the wealthiest 


Obsessed with Reality 

homes in America. Instead, the body has been taken over by 
Carlos, an ancient soul, whose teachings will come as both a 
shock and an inspiration. One being going through a form of 
death to make way for another: that is the phenomenon that 
has made Carlos, as channelled through Jose Luis Alvarez, 
the dominant new figure in New Age consciousness. As even 
one sceptical New York critic puts it: 'The first and only case 
of a channeller offering tangible, physical proof of some 
mysterious change within his human physiology.' 

Now Jose, who has gone through more than 170 of these 
little deaths and transformations, has been told by Carlos to 
visit Australia - in the words of the Master, 'the old new land' 
which is to be the source of a special revelation. Carlos 
already has foretold that in 1988 catastrophes will sweep the 
earth, two major world leaders will die and, later in the year, 
Australians will be among the first to see the rising of a great 
star which will deeply influence future life on earth. 


—3 PM— 

Following a 1986 motorcycle accident, the press kit explained, 
Jose Alvarez, then 17 years old, suffered a mild concussion. After 
he recovered, those who knew him could tell that he had changed. 
A very different voice sometimes emanated from him. Bewil- 
dered, Alvarez sought help from a psychotherapist, a specialist in 
multiple personality disorders. The psychiatrist 'discovered that 
Jose was channelling a distinct entity who was known as Carlos. 
This entity takes over the body of Alvarez when the body's life 
force is relaxed to the right degree.' Carlos, it turns out, is a 
two-thousand-year-old spirit disincarnate, a ghost without bodily 
form, who last invaded a human body in Caracas, Venezuela, in 
1900. Unfortunately, that body died at age 12 in a fall from a 
horse. This may be why, the therapist explained, Carlos could 
enter Alvarez's body following the motorcycle accident. When 
Alvarez goes into his trance, the spirit of Carlos, focused by a 



large and rare crystal, enters him and utters the wisdom of the 

Included in the press kit was a list of major appearances in 
American cities, a videotape of the tumultuous reception that 
Alvarez/Carlos received at a Broadway theatre, his interview on 
New York radio station WOOP, and other indications that here 
was a formidable American New Age phenomenon. Two small 
substantiating details: an article from a South Florida newspaper 
read, 'THEATER NOTE: The three-day stay of channeler CAR- 
LOS has been extended at the War Memorial Auditorium ... in 
response to the requests for further appearances', and an excerpt 
from a television programme guide listed a special on 'THE 
ENTITY CARLOS: This in-depth study reveals the facts behind 
one of today's most popular and controversial personalities'. 

Alvarez and his manager arrived in Sydney first class on 
Qantas. They travelled everywhere in an enormous white stretch 
limousine. They occupied the Presidential Suite of one of the 
city's most prestigious hotels. Alvarez was attired in an elegant 
white gown with a golden medallion. In his first press conference, 
Carlos quickly emerged. The entity was forceful, literate, com- 
manding. Australian television programmes quickly lined up for 
appearances by Alvarez, his manager, and his nurse (to check his 
pulse and announce the presence of Carlos). 

On Australia's Today Show, they were interviewed by the host, 
George Negus. When Negus posed a few reasonable and sceptical 
questions, the New Agers exhibited very thin skins. Carlos laid a 
curse on the anchorman. His manager doused Negus with a glass 
of water. Both stalked off the set. It was a sensation in the tabloid 
press, its significance rehashed on Australian television. 'TV 
Outburst: Water Thrown at Negus', was the front-page headline 
in the 16 February 1988 Daily Mirror. Television stations were 
flooded with calls. One Sydney citizen advised taking the curse on 
Negus very seriously: the army of Satan had already assumed 
control of the United Nations, he said, and Australia might be 

Carlos's next appearance was on the Australian version of A 
Current Affair. A sceptic was brought in who described a magi- 
cian's trick by which the pulse in one hand is made briefly to stop: 


Obsessed with Reality 

you put a rubber ball in your armpit and squeeze. When Carlos's 
authenticity was questioned, he was outraged: 'This interview is 
terminated!' he thundered. 

On the appointed day, the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera 
House was nearly filled. An excited crowd, young and old, milled 
about expectantly. Entrance was free, which reassured those who 
vaguely wondered if it might be some sort of scam. Alvarez seated 
himself on a low couch. His pulse was monitored. Suddenly it 
stopped. Seemingly, he was near death. Low, guttural noises 
emanated from deep within him. The audience gasped in wonder 
and awe. Suddenly, Alvarez's body took on power. His posture 
radiated confidence. A broad, humane, spiritual perspective 
flowed out of Alvarez's mouth. Carlos was here! Interviewed 
afterwards, many members of the audience described how they 
had been moved and delighted. 

The following Sunday, Australia's most popular TV programme 
- named Sixty Minutes after its American counterpart - revealed 
that the Carlos affair was a hoax, front to back. The producers 
thought it would be instructive to explore how easily a faith-healer 
or guru could be created to bamboozle the public and the media. 
So naturally, they contacted one of the world's leading experts on 
deceiving the public (at least among those not holding or advising 
political office) - the magician James Randi. 

'[Tjhere being so many disorders which cure themselves and such 
a disposition in mankind to deceive themselves and one another', 
wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784 — 

. . . and living long having given me frequent opportunities 
of seeing certain remedies cried up as curing everything, and 
yet soon after totally laid aside as useless, I cannot but fear 
that the expectation of great advantage from the new method 
of treating diseases will prove a delusion. That delusion may 
however in some cases be of use while it lasts. 

He was referring to mesmerism. But 'every age has its peculiar 

Unlike Franklin, most scientists feel it's not their job to expose 



pseudoscientific bamboozles, much less, passionately held self- 
deceptions. They tend not to be very good at it either. Scientists 
are used to struggling with Nature, who may surrender her secrets 
reluctantly but who fights fair. Often they are unprepared for 
those unscrupulous practitioners of the 'paranormal' who play by 
different rules. Magicians, on the other hand, are in the deception 
business. They practise one of the many occupations - such as 
acting, advertising, bureaucratic religion and politics - where what 
a naive observer might misunderstand as lying is socially con- 
doned as in the service of a higher good. Many magicians pretend 
they don't cheat, and hint at powers conferred by mystic sources 
or, lately, by alien largesse. Some use their knowledge to expose 
charlatans in and out of their ranks. A thief is set to catch a thief. 

Few rise to this challenge as energetically as James 'The 
Amazing' Randi, accurately self-described as an angry man. He is 
angry not so much about the survival into our day of antediluvian 
mysticism and superstition, but about how uncritical acceptance of 
mysticism and superstition works to defraud, to humiliate, and 
sometimes even to kill. Like all of us, he is imperfect: sometimes 
Randi is intolerant and condescending, lacking in empathy for the 
human frailties that underlie credulity. He is routinely paid for his 
speeches and performances, but nothing compared to what he 
could receive if he declared that his tricks derived from psychic 
powers or divine or extraterrestrial influences. (Most professional 
conjurors, worldwide, seem to believe in the reality of psychic 
phenomena, according to polls of their views.) As a conjuror, he 
has done much to expose remote viewers, 'telepaths', and faith- 
healers who have bilked the public. He demonstrated the simple 
deceptions and misdirections by which some psychic spoonbend- 
ers had conned prominent theoretical physicists into deducing new 
physical phenomena. He has received wide recognition among 
scientists and is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation (so- 
called 'genius') Prize Fellowship. One critic castigated him for 
being 'obsessed with reality'. I wish the same could be said of our 
nation and our species. 

Randi has done more than anyone else in recent times to expose 
pretension and fraud in the lucrative business of faith-healing. He 
sifts refuse. He reports gossip. He listens in on the stream of 


Obsessed with Reality 

'miraculous' information coming to the itinerant healer - not by 
spiritual inspiration from God, but at the radio frequency of 39.17 
megahertz, transmitted by his wife backstage.* 

He discovers that those who rise from their wheelchairs and are 
declared healed had never before been confined to wheelchairs - 
they were invited by an usher to sit in them. He challenges the 
faith-healers to provide serious medical evidence for the validity 
of their claims. He invites local and federal government agencies 
to enforce the laws against fraud and medical malpractice. He 
chastises the news media for their studied avoidance of the issue. 
He exposes the profound contempt of these faith-healers for their 
patients and parishioners. Many are conscious charlatans, using 
Christian evangelical or New Age language and symbols to prey 
on human frailty. Perhaps there are some with motives that are 
not venal. 

Or am I being too harsh? How is the occasional charlatan in 
faith-healing different from the occasional fraud in science? Is it 
fair to be suspicious of an entire profession because of a few bad 
apples? There are at least two important differences, it seems to 
me. First, no one doubts that science actually works, whatever 
mistaken and fraudulent claim may from time to time be offered. 
But whether there are any 'miraculous' cures from faith-healing, 
beyond the body's own ability to cure itself, is very much at issue. 
Secondly, the expose of fraud and error in science is made almost 
exclusively by science. The discipline polices itself, meaning that 
scientists are aware of the potential for charlatanry and mistakes. 
But the exposure of fraud and error in faith-healing is almost 
never done by other faith-healers. Indeed, it is striking how 
reluctant the churches and synagogues are in condemning demon- 
strable deception in their midst. 

When conventional medicine fails, when we must confront pain 
and death, of course we are open to other prospects for hope. 

* Whose minions had interviewed the gullible patients only an hour or two 
earlier. How, except through God, could the preacher know their symptoms 
and street addresses? This scam by the Christian fundamentalist faith-healer 
Peter Popoff, and exposed by Randi, was thinly fictionalized in the 1993 film 
Leap of Faith. 



And, after all, some illnesses are psychogenic. Many can be at 
least ameliorated by a positive cast of mind. Placebos are dummy 
drugs, often sugar pills. Drug companies routinely compare the 
effectiveness of their drugs against placebos given to patients with 
the same disease who had no way to tell the difference between 
the drug and the placebo. Placebos can be astonishingly effective, 
especially for colds, anxiety, depression, pain, and symptoms that 
are plausibly generated by the mind. Conceivably, endorphins - 
the small brain proteins with morphine-like effects - can be 
elicited by belief. A placebo works only if the patient believes it's 
an effective medicine. Within strict limits, hope, it seems, can be 
transformed into biochemistry. 

As a typical example, consider the nausea and vomiting that 
frequently accompany the chemotherapy given to cancer and 
AIDS patients. Nausea and vomiting can also be caused psycho- 
genically, for instance by fear. The drug ondansetron hydrochlo- 
ride greatly reduces the incidence of these symptoms; but is it 
actually the drug or the expectation of relief? In a double-blind 
study 96 per cent of patients rated the drug effective. So did ten 
per cent of the patients taking an identical-looking placebo. 

In an application of the fallacy of observational selection, 
unanswered prayers may be forgotten or dismissed. There is a real 
toll, though: some patients who are not cured by faith reproach 
themselves - perhaps it's their own fault, perhaps they didn't 
believe hard enough. Scepticism, they are rightly told, is an 
impediment both to faith and to (placebo) healing. 

Nearly half of all Americans believe there is such a thing as 
psychic or spiritual healing. Miraculous cures have been associ- 
ated with a wide variety of healers, real and imagined, throughout 
human history. Scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, was in England 
called the 'King's evil', and was supposedly curable only by the 
King's touch. Victims patiently lined up to be touched; the 
monarch briefly submitted to another burdensome obligation of 
high office, and, despite no one, it seems, actually being cured, 
the practice continued for centuries. 

A famous Irish faith-healer of the seventeenth century was 
Valentine Greatraks. He found, somewhat to his surprise, that he 
had the power to cure disease, including colds, ulcers, 'soreness' 


Obsessed with Reality 

and epilepsy. The demand for his services became so great that he 
had no time for anything else. He was forced to become a healer, 
he complained. His method was to cast out the demons responsi- 
ble for disease. All diseases, he asserted, were caused by evil 
spirits, many of whom he recognized and called by name. A 
contemporary chronicler, cited by Mackay, noted that 

he boasted of being much better acquainted with the intrigues 
of demons than he was with the affairs of men ... So great 
was the confidence in him, that the blind fancied they saw the 
light which they did not see - the deaf imagined that they 
heard - the lame that they walked straight, and the paralytic 
that they had recovered the use of their limbs. An idea of 
health made the sick forget for awhile their maladies; and 
imagination, which was not less active in those merely drawn 
by curiosity than in the sick, gave a false view to the one class, 
from the desire of seeing, as it operated a false cure on the 
other from the strong desire of being healed. 

There are countless reports in the world literature of exploration 
and anthropology not only of sicknesses being cured by faith in the 
healer, but also of people wasting away and dying when cursed by 
a sorcerer. A more or less typical example is told by Alvar Nunez 
Cabeza de Vaca, who with a few companions and under condi- 
tions of terrible privation wandered on land and sea, from Florida 
to Texas to Mexico in 1528-36. The many different communities 
of Native Americans he met longed to believe in the supernatural 
healing powers of the strange light-skinned, black-bearded for- 
eigners and their black-skinned companion from Morocco, Este- 
banico. Eventually whole villages came out to meet them, 
depositing all their wealth at the feet of the Spaniards and humbly 
imploring cures. It began modestly enough: 

[T]hey tried to make us into medicine men, without examin- 
ing us or asking for credentials, for they cure illnesses by 
blowing on the sick person . . . and they ordered us to do the 
same and be of some use . . . The way in which we cured was 
by making the sign of the cross over them and blowing on 



them and reciting a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria . . . [A]s 
soon as we made the sign of the cross over them, all those for 
whom we prayed told the others that they were well and 
healthy . . . 

Soon they were curing cripples. Cabeza de Vaca reports he raised 
a man from the dead. After that, 

we were very much hampered by the large number of people 
who were following us . . . their eagerness to come and touch 
us was very great and their importunity so extreme that three 
hours would pass without our being able to persuade them to 
leave us alone. 

When a tribe begged the Spaniards not to leave them, Cabeza de 
Vaca and his companions became angry. Then, 

a strange thing happened . . . [M]any of them fell ill, and 
eight men died the next day. All over the land, in the places 
where this became known, they were so afraid of us that it 
seemed that the very sight of us made them almost die of fear. 

They implored us not to be angry, nor to wish for any more 
of them to die; and they were altogether convinced that we 
killed them simply by wishing to. 

In 1858, an apparition of the Virgin Mary was reported in 
Lourdes, France; the Mother of God confirmed the dogma of her 
immaculate conception which had been proclaimed by Pope Pius 
IX just four years earlier. Something like a hundred million 
people have come to Lourdes since then in the hope of being 
cured, many with illnesses that the medicine of the time was 
helpless to defeat. The Roman Catholic Church rejected the 
authenticity of large numbers of claimed miraculous cures, accept- 
ing only sixty-five in nearly a century and a half (of tumours, 
tuberculosis, opthalmitis, impetigo, bronchitis, paralysis and 
other diseases, but not, say, the regeneration of a limb or a 
severed spinal cord). Of the sixty-five, women outnumber men 
ten to one. The odds of a miraculous cure at Lourdes, then, are 


Obsessed with Reality 

about one in a million; you are roughly as likely to recover after 
visiting Lourdes as you are to win the lottery, or to die in the crash 
of a randomly selected regularly scheduled airplane flight - 
including the one taking you to Lourdes. 

The spontaneous remission rate of all cancers, lumped together, 
is estimated to be something between one in ten thousand and one 
in a hundred thousand. If no more than five per cent of those who 
come to Lourdes were there to treat their cancers, there should 
have been something between fifty and 500 'miraculous' cures of 
cancer alone. Since only three of the attested sixty-five cures are 
of cancer, the rate of spontaneous remission at Lourdes seems to 
be lower than if the victims had just stayed at home. Of course, if 
you're one of the sixty-five, it's going to be very hard to convince 
you that your trip to Lourdes wasn't the cause of the remission of 
your disease . . . Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Something similar 
seems true of individual faith-healers. 

After hearing much from his patients about alleged faith- 
healing, a Minnesota physician named William Nolen spent a year 
and a half trying to track down the most striking cases. Was there 
clear medical evidence that the disease was really present before 
the 'cure'? If so, had the disease actually disappeared after the 
cure, or did we just have the healer's or the patient's say-so? He 
uncovered many cases of fraud, including the first exposure in 
America of 'psychic surgery'. But he found not one instance of 
cure of any serious organic (non-psychogenic) disease. There were 
no cases where gallstones or rheumatoid arthritis, say, were 
cured, much less cancer or cardiovascular disease. When a child's 
spleen is ruptured, Nolen noted, perform a simple surgical 
operation and the child is completely better. But take that child to 
a faith-healer and she's dead in a day. Dr Nolen's conclusion: 

When [faith] -healers treat serious organic disease, they are 
responsible for untold anguish and unhappiness . . . The 
healers become killers. 

Even a recent book advocating the efficacy of prayer in treating 
disease (Larry Dossey, Healing Words) is troubled by the fact that 
some diseases are more easily cured or mitigated than others. If 



prayer works, why can't God cure cancer or grow back a severed 
limb? Why so much avoidable suffering that God could so readily 
prevent? Why does God have to be prayed to at all? Doesn't He 
already know what cures need to be performed? Dossey also 
begins with a quote from Stanley Krippner, MD (described as 
'one of the most authoritative investigators of the variety of 
unorthodox healing methods used around the world'): 

[T]he research data on distant, prayer-based healing are 
promising, but too sparse to allow any firm conclusion to be 

This after many trillions of prayers over the millennia. 

As Cabeza de Vaca's experience suggests, the mind can cause 
certain diseases, even fatal diseases. When blindfolded patients 
are deceived into believing they're being touched by a leaf such as 
poison ivy or poison oak, they produce an ugly red contact 
dermatitis. What faith-healing characteristically may help are 
mind-mediated or placebo diseases: some back and knee pains, 
headaches, stuttering, ulcers, stress, hay fever, asthma, hysterical 
paralysis and blindness, and false pregnancy (with cessation of 
menstrual periods and abdominal swelling). These are all diseases 
in which the state of mind may play a key role. In the late 
medieval cures associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary, 
most were of sudden, short-lived, whole-body or partial paralyses 
that are plausibly psychogenic. It was widely held, moreover, that 
only devout believers could be so cured. It's no surprise that 
appeals to a state of mind called faith can relieve symptoms 
caused, at least in part, by another, perhaps not very different 
state of mind. 

But there's something more: the Harvest Moon Festival is an 
important holiday in traditional Chinese communities in America. 
In the week preceding the festival, the death rate in the commu- 
nity is found to fall by 35 per cent. In the following week the death 
rate jumps by 35 percent. Control groups of non-Chinese show no 
such effect. You might think that suicides are responsible, but 
only deaths from natural causes are counted. You might think that 
stress or overeating might account for it, but this could hardly 


Obsessed with Reality 

explain the fall in death rate before the harvest moon. The largest 
effect is for people with cardiovascular disease, which is known to 
be influenced by stress. Cancer showed a smaller effect. On more 
detailed study, it turned out that the fluctuations in death rate 
occurred exclusively among women 75 years old or older. The 
Harvest Moon Festival is presided over by the oldest women in 
the households. They were able to stave off death for a week or 
two to perform their ceremonial responsibilities. A similar effect 
is found among Jewish men in the weeks centred on Passover - a 
ceremony in which older men play a leading role - and likewise, 
worldwide for birthdays, graduation ceremonies and the like. 

In a more controversial study, Stanford University psychiatrists 
divided eighty-six women with metastatic breast cancer into two 
groups - one in which they were encouraged to examine their 
fears of dying and to take charge of their lives, and the other given 
no special psychiatric support. To the surprise of the researchers, 
not only did the support group experience less pain, but they also 
lived, on average, eighteen months longer. 

The leader of the Stanford study, David Spiegel, speculates that 
the cause may be Cortisol and other 'stress hormones' which 
impair the body's protective immune system. Severely depressed 
people, students during exam periods, and the bereaved all have 
reduced white blood cell counts. Good emotional support may not 
have much effect on advanced forms of cancer, but it may work to 
reduce the chances of secondary infections in a person already 
much weakened by the disease or its treatment. 

In his nearly forgotten 1903 book, Christian Science, Mark 
Twain wrote 

The power which a man's imagination has over his body to 
heal it or make it sick is a force which none of us is born 
without. The first man had it, the last one will possess it. 

Occasionally, some of the pain and anxiety or other symptoms of 
more serious diseases can be relieved by faith-healers - however, 
without arresting the progress of the disease. But this is no small 
benefit. Faith and prayer may be able to relieve some symptoms 
of disease and their treatment, ease the suffering of the afflicted 



and even prolong lives a little. In assessing the religion called 
Christian Science, Mark Twain - its severest critic of the time - 
nevertheless allowed that the bodies and lives it had 'made 
whole' by the power of suggestion more than compensated for 
those it had killed by withholding medical treatment in favour 
of prayer. 

After his death, assorted Americans reported contact with the 
ghost of President John F. Kennedy. Before home shrines bearing 
his picture, miraculous cures began to be reported. 'He gave his 
life for his people,' one adherent of this stillborn religion 
explained. According to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, 
'To believers, Kennedy is thought of as a god.' Something similar 
can be seen in the Elvis Presley phenomenon, and the heartfelt 
cry: 'The King lives.' If such belief systems could arise spontane- 
ously, think how much more could be done by a well-organized, 
and especially an unscrupulous, campaign. 

In response to their inquiry, Randi suggested to Australia's Sixty 
Minutes that they generate a hoax from scratch, using someone 
with no training in magic or public speaking, and no experience in 
the pulpit. As he was thinking the scam through, his eye fell upon 
Jose Luis Alvarez, a young performance sculptor who was Randi's 
tenant. 'Why not?' answered Alvarez, who when I met him 
seemed bright, good-humoured and thoughtful. He went through 
intensive training, including mock TV appearances and press 
conferences. He didn't have to think up the answers, though, 
because he had a nearly invisible radio receiver in his ear, through 
which Randi prompted. Emissaries from Sixty Minutes checked 
Alvarez's performance. The Carlos personality was Alvarez' 

When Alvarez and his 'manager' - likewise recruited for the job 
with no previous experience - arrived in Sydney, there was James 
Randi, slouching and inconspicuous, whispering into his transmit- 
ter, at the periphery of the action. The substantiating documenta- 
tion had all been faked. The curse, the water-throwing and all the 
rest were rehearsed to attract media attention. They did. Many of 
the people who showed up at the Opera House had done so 
because of the television and press attention. One Australian 


Obsessed with Reality 

newspaper chain even printed verbatim handouts from the 'Carlos 

After Sixty Minutes aired, the rest of the Australian media was 
furious. They had been used, they complained, lied to. 'Just as 
there are legal guidelines concerning the police use of provoca- 
teurs,' thundered Peter Robinson in the Australian Financial 

there must be limits to how far the media can go in setting up 
a misleading situation ... I, for one, can simply not accept 
that telling a lie is an acceptable way of reporting the 
truth . . . Every poll of public opinion shows that there is a 
suspicion among the general public that the media do not tell 
the whole truth, or that they distort things, or that they 
exaggerate, or that they are biased. 

Mr Robinson feared that Carlos might have lent credence to 
this widespread misperception. Headlines ranged from 'How 
Carlos Made Fools of Them AH' to 'Hoax Was Just Dumb'. 
Newspapers that had not trumpeted Carlos patted themselves 
on the back for their restraint. Negus said of Sixty Minutes, 
'Even people of integrity can make mistakes,' and denied being 
duped. Anyone calling himself a channeller, he said, is 'a fraud 
by definition'. 

Sixty Minutes and Randi stressed that the Australian media had 
made no serious effort to check any of 'Carlos's' bona fides. He 
had never appeared in any of the cities listed. The videotape of 
Carlos on the stage of a New York theatre had been a favour 
granted by the magicians Penn and Teller, who were appearing 
there. They asked the audience just to give a big hand of applause; 
Alvarez, in smock and medallion, walked on; the audience 
dutifully applauded, Randi got his videotape, Alvarez waved 
goodbye, the show went on. And there is no New York City radio 
station with call letters WOOP. 

Other reasons for suspicion could readily be mined in Carlos's 
writings. But because the intellectual currency has been so 
debased, because credulity, New Age and Old, is so rampant, 
because sceptical thinking is so rarely practised, no parody is too 



implausible. The Carlos Foundation offered for sale (they were 
scrupulously careful not actually to sell anything) an 'Atlantis 

Five of these unique crystals have so far been found by the 
ascended master during his travels. Unexplained by science, 
each crystal harnesses almost pure energy . . . [and has] 
enormous healing powers. The forms are actually fossilized 
spiritual energy and are a great boon to the preparation of the 
Earth for the New Age . . . Of the Five, the ascended master 
wears one Atlantic crystal at all times close to his body for 
protection and to enhance all spiritual activities. Two have 
been acquired by kindly supplicants in the United States of 
America in exchange for the substantial contribution the 
ascended master requests. 

Or, under the heading 'THE WATERS OF CARLOS': 

The ascended master finds occasionally water of such purity 
that he undertakes to energize a quantity of it for others to 
benefit, an intensive process. To produce what is always too 
little, the ascended master purifies himself and a quantity of 
pure quartz crystal fashioned into flasks. He then places 
himself and the crystals into a large copper bowl, polished 
and kept warm. For a twenty-four hour period the ascended 
master pours energy into the spiritual repository of the 
water . . . The water need not be removed from the flask to 
be utilized spiritually. Simply holding the flask and concen- 
trating on healing a wound or illness will produce astounding 
results. However, if serious mischance befalls you or a close 
one, a tiny dab of the energized water will immediately assist 


The red colour imparted to the holding flasks that the 
ascended master has fashioned for the tears is proof enough 
of their power, but their affect [sic] during meditation has 


Obsessed with Reality 

been described by those who have experienced it as 'a 
glorious Oneness'. 

Then there is a little book, The Teachings of Carlos, which begins: 






The first teaching asks, 'Why are we here . . .?' The answer: 'Who 
can say what is the one answer? There are many answers to any 
question, and all the answers are right answers. It is so. Do you see?' 

The book enjoins us not to turn to the next page until we have 
understood the page we are on. This is one of several factors that 
makes finishing it difficult. 

'Of doubters,' it reveals later, 'I can say only this: let them take 
from the matter just what they wish. They end up with nothing - a 
handful of space, perhaps. And what does the believer have? 
EVERYTHING! All questions are answered, since all and any 
answers are correct answers. And the answers are right! Argue 
that, doubter.' 

Or: 'Don't ask for explanations of everything. Westerners, in 
particular, are always demanding long-winded descriptions of why 
this, and why that. Most of what is asked is obvious. Why bother 
with probing into these matters? ... By belief, all things become 

The last page of the book displays a single word in large 



letters: we are exhorted to 'THINK!' 

The full text of The Teachings of Carlos was of course written by 
Randi. He dashed it off on his laptop computer in a few hours. 

The Australian media felt betrayed by one of their own. The 
leading television programme in the country had gone out of its 
way to expose shoddy standards of fact-checking and widespread 
gullibility in institutions devoted to news and public affairs. Some 
media analysts excused it on the grounds that it obviously wasn't 
important; if it had been important, they would have checked it 
out. There were few mea culpas. None who had been taken in 
were willing to appear on a retrospective of the 'Carlos Affair' 
scheduled for the following Sunday on Sixty Minutes. 

Of course, there's nothing special about Australia in all of this. 
Alvarez, Randi, and their co-conspirators could have chosen any 
nation on Earth and it would have worked. Even those who gave 
Carlos a national television audience knew enough to ask some 
sceptical questions - but they couldn't resist inviting him to appear 
in the first place. The internecine struggle within the media 
dominated the headlines after Carlos's departure. Puzzled com- 
mentaries were written about the expose. What was the point? 
What was proved? 

Alvarez and Randi proved how little it takes to tamper with our 
beliefs, how readily we are led, how easy it is to fool the public 
when people are lonely and starved for something to believe in. If 
Carlos had stayed longer in Australia and concentrated more on 
healing - by prayer, by believing in him, by wishing on his bottled 
tears, by stroking his crystals - there's no doubt that people would 
have reported being cured of many illnesses, especially psycho- 
genic ones. Even with nothing more fraudulent than his appear- 
ance, sayings and ancillary products, some people would have 
gotten better because of Carlos. 

This, again, is the placebo effect found with almost every 
faith-healer. We believe we're taking a potent medicine and the 
pain goes away - for a time at least. And when we believe we've 
received a potent spiritual cure, the disease sometimes also goes 
away - for a time at least. Some people spontaneously announce 
that they've been cured even when they haven't. Detailed follow- 
ups by Nolen, Randi and many others of those who have been told 


Obsessed with Reality 

they were cured and agreed that they were - in, say, televised 
services by American faith-healers - were unable to find even one 
person with serious organic disease who was in fact cured. Even 
significant improvement in their condition is dubious. As the 
Lourdes experience suggests, you may have to go through ten 
thousand to a million cases before you find one truly startling 

A faith-healer may or may not start out with fraud in mind. But 
to his amazement, his patients actually seem to be improving. 
Their emotions are genuine, their gratitude heart-felt. When the 
healer is criticized, such people rush to his defence. Several 
elderly attendees of the channelling at the Sydney Opera House 
were incensed after the Sixty Minutes expose: 'Never mind what 
they say,' they told Alvarez, 'we believe in you.' 

These successes may be enough to convince many charlatans, 
no matter how cynical they were at the beginning, that they 
actually have mystical powers. Maybe they're not successful every 
time. The powers come and go, they tell themselves. They have to 
cover the down time. If they must cheat a little now and then, it 
serves a higher purpose, they tell themselves. Their spiel is 
consumer-tested. It works. 

Most of these figures are only after your money. That's the 
good news. But what worries me is that a Carlos will come along 
with bigger fish to fry - attractive, commanding, patriotic, exuding 
leadership. All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic 
leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to 
feel good. Most reporters, editors and producers, swept up with 
the rest of us, will shy away from real sceptical scrutiny. He won't 
be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he'll be selling 
you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing 
bundle of beliefs than Carlos's. Whatever it is, it will be accompa- 
nied by warnings about the dangers of scepticism. 

In the celebrated film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, 
the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion are intimidated - indeed 
awed - by the out-sized oracular figure called the Great Oz. But 
Dorothy's little dog Toto snaps at a concealing curtain and reveals 
that the Great Oz is in fact a machine run by a small, tubby, 
frightened man, as much an exile in this strange land as they. 



I think we're lucky that James Randi is tugging at the curtain. 
But it would be as dangerous to rely on him to expose all the 
quacks, humbugs and bunkum in the world as it would be to 
believe those same charlatans. If we don't want to get taken, we 
need to do this job for ourselves. 

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we've been 
bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the 
bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. 
The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too painful to 
acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've been taken. Once you 
give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back. So 
the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new ones rise. 

Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly 
visitors can be seen dimly at best. If we turn up the lights a little, 
so we have a chance to see what's going on, the spirits vanish. 
They're shy, we're told, and some of us believe it. In twentieth- 
century parapsychology laboratories, there is the 'observer effect': 
those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish 
markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in 
the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi. What they 
need is darkness and gullibility. 

A little girl who had been a co-conspirator in a famous 
nineteenth-century flimflam - spirit-rapping, in which ghosts 
answer questions by loud thumping - grew up and confessed it was 
an imposture. She was cracking the joint in her big toe. She 
demonstrated how it was done. But the public apology was largely 
ignored and, when acknowledged, denounced. Spirit-rapping was 
too reassuring to be abandoned merely on the say-so of a 
self-confessed rapper, even if she started the whole business in the 
first place. The story began to circulate that the confession was 
coerced out of her by fanatical rationalists. 

As I described earlier, British hoaxers confessed to having 
made 'crop circles', geometrical figures generated in grain fields. 
It wasn't alien artists working in wheat as their medium, but two 
blokes with a board, a rope and a taste for whimsy. Even when 
they demonstrated how they did it, though, believers were 
unimpressed. Maybe some of the crop circles are hoaxes, they 


Obsessed with Reality 

argued, but there are too many of them, and some of the 
pictograms are too complex. Only extraterrestrials could do it. 
Then others in Britain confessed. But crop circles abroad, it was 
objected, in Hungary for example, how can you explain that? 
Then copycat Hungarian teenagers confessed. But what 
about . . .? 

To test the credulity of an alien abduction psychiatrist, a woman 
poses as an abductee. The therapist is enthusiastic about the 
fantasies she spins. But when she announces it was all a fake, what 
is his response? To re-examine his protocols or his understanding 
of what these cases mean? No. On various days he suggests (1) 
even if she isn't herself aware of it, she was in fact abducted; or (2) 
she's crazy - after all, she went to a psychiatrist, didn't she?; or (3) 
he was on top of the hoax from the beginning and just gave her 
enough rope to hang herself. 

If it's sometimes easier to reject strong evidence than to admit 
that we've been wrong, this is also information about ourselves 
worth having. 

A scientist places an ad in a Paris newspaper offering a free 
horoscope. He receives about 150 replies, each, as requested, 
detailing a place and time of birth. Every respondent is then sent 
the identical horoscope, along with a questionnaire asking how 
accurate the horoscope had been. Ninety-four per cent of the 
respondents (and 90 per cent of their families and friends) reply 
that they were at least recognizable in the horoscope. However, 
the horoscope was drawn up for a French serial killer. If an 
astrologer can get this far without even meeting his subjects, think 
how well someone sensitive to human nuances and not overly 
scrupulous might do. 

Why are we so easily taken in by fortune-tellers, psychic seers, 
palmists, tea-leaf, tarot and yarrow readers, and their ilk? Of 
course, they note our posture, facial expressions, clothing and 
answers to seemingly innocuous questions. Some of them are 
brilliant at it, and these are areas about which many scientists 
seem almost unconscious. There is also a computer network to 
which 'professional' psychics subscribe, the details of their cus- 
tomers' lives available to their colleagues in an instant. A key tool 



is the so-called 'cold read', a statement of opposing predisposi- 
tions so tenuously balanced that anyone will recognize a grain of 
truth. Here's an example: 

At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other 
times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have 
found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. 
You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and 
become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and 
limitations. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you 
tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. While you 
have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to 
compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused 
capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage. You 
have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong 
need for other people to like you and for them to admire you. 

Almost everyone finds this characterization recognizable, and 
many feel that it describes them perfectly. Small wonder: we are 
all human. 

The list of 'evidence' that some therapists think demonstrates 
repressed childhood sexual abuse (for example, in The Courage to 
Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis) is very long and prosaic: it 
includes sleep disorders, overeating, anorexia and bulimia, sexual 
dysfunction, vague anxieties, and even an inability to remember 
childhood sexual abuse. Another book, by the social worker E. 
Sue Blume, lists, among other telltale signs of forgotten incest: 
headaches, suspicion or its absence, excessive sexual passion or its 
absence, and adoring one's parents. Among diagnostic items for 
detecting 'dysfunctional' families listed by Charles Whitfield, MD, 
are 'aches and pains', feeling 'more alive' in a crisis, being anxious 
about 'authority figures', and having 'tried counseling or psycho- 
therapy', yet feeling 'that "something" is wrong or missing'. Like 
the cold read, if the list is long and broad enough, everyone will 
have 'symptoms'. 

Sceptical scrutiny is not only the toolkit for rooting out bunkum 
and cruelty that prey on those least able to protect themselves and 
most in need of our compassion, people offered little other hope. 


Obsessed with Reality 

It is also a timely reminder that mass rallies, radio and television, 
the print media, electronic marketing, and mail-order technology 
permit other kinds of lies to be injected into the body politic, to 
take advantage of the frustrated, the unwary and the defenceless 
in a society riddled with political ills that are being treated 
ineffectively if at all. 

Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam and wishes 
disguised as facts are not restricted to parlour magic and ambigu- 
ous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple 
through mainstream political, social, religious and economic 
issues in every nation. 




There's no such thing as objective truth. We make our own 
truth. There's no such things as objective reality. We make 
our own reality. There are spiritual, mystical, or inner ways 
of knowing that are superior to our ordinary ways of 
knowing. If an experience seems real, it is real. If an idea 
feels right to you, it is right. We are incapable of acquiring 
knowledge of the true nature of reality. Science itself is 
irrational or mystical. It's just another faith or belief system 
or myth, with no more justification than any other. It 
doesn't matter whether beliefs are true or not, as long as 
they're meaningful to you. 

a summary of New Age beliefs, 
from Theodore Schick Jr and Lewis Vaughn, 
How to Think About Weird Things: 
Critical Thinking for a New Age 
(Mountain View, CA: 
Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995) 

If the established framework of science is plausibly in error (or 
arbitrary, or irrelevant, or unpatriotic, or impious, or mainly 
serving the interests of the powerful), then perhaps we can save 
ourselves the trouble of understanding what so many people think 
of as a complex, difficult, highly mathematical, and counterintui- 
tive body of knowledge. Then all the scientists would have their 



comeuppance. Science envy could be transcended. Those who 
have pursued other paths to knowledge, those who have secretly 
harboured beliefs that science has scorned, could now have their 
place in the Sun. 

The rate of change in science is responsible for some of the fire 
it draws. Just when we've finally understood something the 
scientists are talking about, they tell us it isn't any longer true. 
And even if it is, there's a slew of new things - things we never 
heard of, things difficult to believe, things with disquieting 
implications - that they claim to have discovered recently. Scien- 
tists can be perceived as toying with us, as wanting to overturn 
everything, as socially dangerous. 

Edward U. Condon was a distinguished American physicist, a 
pioneer in quantum mechanics, a participant in the development 
of radar and nuclear weapons in World War II, research director 
of Corning Glass, director of the National Bureau of Standards, 
and president of the American Physical Society (as well as, late in 
his life, professor of physics at the University of Colorado, where 
he directed a controversial Air Force-funded scientific study of 
UFOs). He was one of the physicists whose loyalty to the United 
States was challenged by members of Congress - including 
Congressman Richard M. Nixon, who called for the revocation of 
his security clearance - in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The 
superpatriotic chairman of the House Committee on 
Un-American Activities (HCUA), Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, 
would call the physicist 'Dr Condom', the 'weakest link' in 
American security, and - at one point - the 'missing link'. His 
view on Constitutional guarantees can be gleaned from the 
following response to a witness's lawyer: 'The rights you have are 
the rights given you by this Committee. We will determine what 
rights you have and what rights you have not got before the 

Albert Einstein publicly called on all those summoned before 
HCUA to refuse to cooperate. In 1948, President Harry Truman 
at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the 
Advancement of Science, and with Condon sitting beside him, 
denounced Rep. Thomas and HCUA on the grounds that vital 
scientific research 'may be made impossible by the creation of an 



atmosphere in which no man feels safe against the public airing of 
unfounded rumors, gossip and vilification'. He called HCUA's 
activities 'the most un-American thing we have to contend with 
today. It is the climate of a totalitarian country.'* 

The playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, about the 
Salem Witch Trials, in this period. When the drama opened in 
Europe, Miller was denied a passport by the State Department on 
the grounds that it was not in the best interests of the United 
States for him to travel abroad. On opening night in Brussels the 
play was greeted with tumultuous applause, whereupon the US 
Ambassador stood up and took a bow. Brought before HCUA, 
Miller was chastised for the suggestion that Congressional investi- 
gations might have something in common with witch trials; he 
replied, 'The comparison is inevitable, sir.' Thomas was shortly 
afterwards thrown in jail for fraud. 

One summer in graduate school I was a student of Condon's. I 
remember vividly his account of being brought up before some 
loyalty review board: 

'Dr Condon, it says here that you have been at the forefront of a 
revolutionary movement in physics called' - and here the inquisitor 
read the words slowly and carefully - 'quantum mechanics. It strikes 
this hearing that if you could be at the forefront of one revolutionary 
movement. . . you could be at the forefront of another.' 

Condon, quick on his feet, replied that the accusation was 
untrue. He was not a revolutionary in physics. He raised his right 
hand: 'I believe in Archimedes' Principle, formulated in the third 
century BC. I believe in Kepler's laws of planetary motion, 
discovered in the seventeenth century. I believe in Newton's 
laws . . .' And on he went, invoking the illustrious names of 
Bernoulli, Fourier, Ampere, Boltzmann and Maxwell. This physi- 
cist's catechism did not gain him much. The tribunal did not 

* But Truman's responsibility for the witch-hunt atmosphere of the late 1940s 
and early 1950s is considerable. His 1947 Executive Order 9835 authorized 
inquiries into the opinions and associates of all federal employees, without the 
right to confront the accuser or even, in most cases, to know what the 
accusation was. Those found wanting were fired. His Attorney General, Tom 
Clark, established a list of 'subversive' organizations so wide that at one time it 
included Consumer's Union. 



appreciate humour in so serious a matter. But the most they were 
able to pin on Condon, as I recall, was that in high school he had a 
job delivering a socialist newspaper door-to-door on his bicycle. 

Imagine you seriously want to understand what quantum mechan- 
ics is about. There is a mathematical underpinning that you must 
first acquire, mastery of each mathematical subdiscipline leading 
you to the threshold of the next. In turn you must learn arithme- 
tic, Euclidian geometry, high school algebra, differential and 
integral calculus, ordinary and partial differential equations, 
vector calculus, certain special functions of mathematical physics, 
matrix algebra, and group theory. For most physics students, this 
might occupy them from, say, third grade to early graduate school 
- roughly fifteen years. Such a course of study does not actually 
involve learning any quantum mechanics, but merely establishing 
the mathematical framework required to approach it deeply. 

The job of the popularizer of science, trying to get across some 
idea of quantum mechanics to a general audience that has not 
gone through these initiation rites, is daunting. Indeed, there are 
no successful popularizations of quantum mechanics in my opin- 
ion, partly for this reason. These mathematical complexities are 
compounded by the fact that quantum theory is so resolutely 
counterintuitive. Common sense is almost useless in approaching 
it. It's no good, Richard Feynman once said, asking why it is that 
way. No one knows why it is that way. That's just the way it is. 

Now suppose we were to approach some obscure religion or 
New Age doctrine or shamanistic belief system sceptically. We 
have an open mind; we understand there's something interesting 
here; we introduce ourselves to the practitioner and ask for an 
intelligible summary. Instead we are told that it's intrinsically too 
difficult to be explained simply, that it's replete with 'mysteries', 
but if we're willing to become acolytes for fifteen years, at the end 
of that time we might begin to be prepared to consider the subject 
seriously. Most of us, I think, would say that we simply don't have 
the time; and many would suspect that the business about fifteen 
years just to get to the threshold of understanding is evidence that 
the whole subject is a bamboozle: if it's too hard for us to 
understand, doesn't it follow that it's too hard for us to criticize 


knowledgeably? Then the bamboozle has free rein. 

So how is shamanistic or theological or New Age doctrine differ- 
ent from quantum mechanics? The answer is that even if we cannot 
understand it, we can verify that quantum mechanics works. We can 
compare the quantitative predictions of quantum theory with the 
measured wavelengths of spectral lines of the chemical elements, the 
behaviour of semiconductors and liquid helium, microprocessors, 
which kinds of molecules form from their constituent atoms, the 
existence and properties of white dwarf stars, what happens in 
masers and lasers, and which materials are susceptible to which kinds 
of magnetism. We don't have to understand the theory to see what it 
predicts. We don't have to be accomplished physicists to read what 
the experiments reveal. In every one of these instances, as in many 
others, the predictions of quantum mechanics are strikingly, and to 
high accuracy, confirmed. 

But the shaman tells us that his doctrine is true because it too 
works - not on arcane matters of mathematical physics but on what 
really counts: he can cure people. Very well, then, let's accumulate 
the statistics on shamanistic cures, and see if they work better than 
placebos. If they do, let's willingly grant that there's something here 
- even if it's only that some illnesses are psychogenic, and can be 
cured or mitigated by the right attitudes and mental states. We can 
also compare the efficacy of alternative shamanistic systems. 

Whether the shaman grasps why his cures work is another story. 
In quantum mechanics we have a purported understanding of 
Nature on the basis of which, step by step and quantitatively, we 
make predictions about what will happen if a certain experiment, 
never before attempted, is carried out. If the experiment bears out 
the prediction - especially if it does so numerically and precisely - 
we have confidence that we knew what we were doing. There are 
at best few examples with this character among shamans, priests 
and New Age gurus. 

Another important distinction was suggested in Reason and 
Nature, the 1931 book by Morris Cohen, a celebrated philosopher 
of science: 

To be sure, the vast majority of people who are untrained can 
accept the results of science only on authority. But there is 



obviously an important difference between an establishment 
that is open and invites every one to come, study its methods, 
and suggest improvement, and one that regards the question- 
ing of its credentials as due to wickedness of heart, such as 
[Cardinal] Newman attributed to those who questioned the 
infallibility of the Bible . . . Rational science treats its credit 
notes as always redeemable on demand, while non-rational 
authoritarianism regards the demand for the redemption of 
its paper as a disloyal lack of faith. 

The myths and folklore of many pre-modern cultures have 
explanatory or at least mnemonic value. In stories that everyone 
can appreciate and even witness, they encode the environment. 
Which constellations are rising or the orientation of the Milky 
Way on a given day of the year can be remembered by a story 
about lovers reunited or a canoe negotiating the sacred river. 
Since recognizing the sky is essential for planting and reaping and 
following the game, such stories have important practical value. 
They can also be helpful as psychological projective tests or as 
reassurances of humanity's place in the Universe. But that doesn't 
mean that the Milky Way really is a river or that a canoe really is 
traversing it before our eyes. 

Quinine comes from an infusion of the bark of a particular tree 
from the Amazon rain forest. How did pre-modern people ever 
discover that a tea made from this tree, of all the plants in the 
forest, would relieve the symptoms of malaria? They must have 
tried every tree and every plant - roots, stems, bark, leaves - 
tried chewing on them, mashing them up, making an infusion. 
This constitutes a massive set of scientific experiments continu- 
ing over generations, experiments that moreover could not be 
duplicated today for reasons of medical ethics. Think of how 
many bark infusions from other trees must have been useless, 
or made the patient retch or even die. In such a case, the healer 
chalks these potential medicines off the list, and moves on to 
the next. The data of ethnopharmacology may not be systemati- 
cally or even consciously acquired. By trial and error, though, 
and carefully remembering what worked, eventually they get 
there - using the rich molecular riches in the plant kingdom 



to accumulate a pharmacopoeia that works. Absolutely essen- 
tial, life-saving information can be acquired from folk medicine 
and in no other way. We should be doing much more than we 
are to mine the treasures in such folk knowledge worldwide. 

Likewise for, say, predicting the weather in a valley near the 
Orinoco: it is perfectly possible that pre-industrial peoples have 
noted over the millennia regularities, premonitory indications, 
cause-and-effect relationships at a particular geographic locale of 
which professors of meteorology and climatology in some distant 
university are wholly ignorant. But it does not follow that the 
shamans of such cultures are able to predict the weather in Paris 
or Tokyo, much less the global climate. 

Certain kinds of folk knowledge are valid and priceless. Others 
are at best metaphors and codifiers. Ethnomedicine, yes; astro- 
physics, no. It is certainly true that all beliefs and all myths are 
worthy of a respectful hearing. It is not true that all folk beliefs are 
equally valid if we're talking not about an internal mindset, but 
about understanding the external reality. 

For centuries, science has been under a line of attack that, rather 
than pseudoscience, can be called antiscience. Science, and aca- 
demic scholarship in general, the contention these days goes, is 
too subjective. Some even allege it's entirely subjective, as is, they 
say, history. History generally is written by the victors to justify 
their actions, to arouse patriotic fervour, and to suppress the 
legitimate claims of the vanquished. When no overwhelming 
victory takes place, each side writes self-promotional accounts of 
what really happened. English histories castigated the French, and 
vice versa; US histories until very recently ignored the de facto 
policies of lebensraum and genocide toward Native Americans; 
Japanese histories of the events leading to World War II minimize 
Japanese atrocities, and suggest that their chief purpose was 
altruistically to free East Asia from European and American 
colonialism; Poland was invaded in 1939, Nazi historians asserted, 
because Poland, ruthless and unprovoked, attacked Germany; 
Soviet historians pretended that the Soviet troops that put down 
the Hungarian (1956) and Czech (1968) Revolutions were invited 
in by general acclamation in the invaded nations rather than by 



Russian stooges; Belgian histories tend to gloss over the atrocities 
committed when the Congo was a private fiefdom of the King of 
Belgium; Chinese historians are strangely oblivious of the tens of 
millions of deaths caused by Mao Zedong's 'Great Leap Forward'; 
that God condones and even advocates slavery was repeatedly 
argued from the pulpit and in the schools in Christian slave- 
holding societies, but Christian polities that have freed their slaves 
are mostly silent on the matter; as brilliant, widely read and sober 
a historian as Edward Gibbon would not meet with Benjamin 
Franklin when they found themselves at the same English country 
inn, because of the late unpleasantness of the American Revolu- 
tion. (Franklin then volunteered source material to Gibbon when 
he turned, as Franklin was sure he soon would, from the decline 
and fall of the Roman Empire to the decline and fall of the British 
Empire. Franklin was right about the British Empire, but his 
timetable was about two centuries early.) 

These histories have traditionally been written by admired 
academic historians, often pillars of the establishment. Local 
dissent is given short shrift. Objectivity is sacrificed in the service 
of higher goals. From this doleful fact, some have gone so far as to 
conclude that there is no such thing as history, no possibility of 
reconstructing the actual events; that all we have are biased 
self-justifications; and that this conclusion stretches from history 
to all of knowledge, science included. 

And yet who would deny that there were actual sequences of 
historical events, with real causal threads, even if our ability to 
reconstruct them in their full weave is limited, even if the signal is 
awash in an ocean of self-congratulatory noise? The danger of 
subjectivity and prejudice has been apparent from the beginning 
of history. Thucydides warned against it. Cicero wrote 

The first law is that the historian shall never dare to set down 
what is false; the second, that he shall never dare to conceal 
the truth; the third, that there shall be no suspicion in his 
work of either favouritism or prejudice. 

Lucian of Samosata, in How History Should Be Written, published 
in the year 170, urged 'The historian should be fearless and 



incorruptible; a man of independence, loving frankness and truth'. 

It is the responsibility of those historians with integrity to try to 
reconstruct that actual sequence of events, however disappointing 
or alarming it may be. Historians learn to suppress their natural 
indignation about affronts to their nations and acknowledge, 
where appropriate, that their national leaders may have commit- 
ted atrocious crimes. They may have to dodge outraged patriots as 
an occupational hazard. They recognize that accounts of events 
have passed through biased human filters, and that historians 
themselves have biases. Those who want to know what actually 
happened will become fully conversant with the views of histori- 
ans in other, once adversary, nations. All that can be hoped for is 
a set of successive approximations: by slow steps, and through 
improving self-knowledge, our understanding of historical events 

Something similar is true in science. We have biases; we breathe 
in the prevailing prejudices from our surroundings like everyone 
else. Scientists have on occasion given aid and comfort to a variety 
of noxious doctrines (including the supposed 'superiority' of one 
ethnic group or gender over another from measurements of brain 
size or skull bumps or IQ tests). Scientists are often reluctant to 
offend the rich and powerful. Occasionally, a few of them cheat 
and steal. Some worked - many without a trace of moral regret - 
for the Nazis. Scientists also exhibit biases connected with human 
chauvinisms and with our intellectual limitations. As I've dis- 
cussed earlier, scientists are also responsible for deadly technolo- 
gies - sometimes inventing them on purpose, sometimes being 
insufficiently cautious about unintended side-effects. But it is also 
scientists who, in most such cases, have blown the whistle alerting 
us to the danger. 

Scientists make mistakes. Accordingly, it is the job of the 
scientist to recognize our weakness, to examine the widest range 
of opinions, to be ruthlessly self-critical. Science is a collective 
enterprise with the error-correction machinery often running 
smoothly. It has an overwhelming advantage over history, 
because in science we can do experiments. If you are unsure of the 
negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris in 1814-15, replaying 
the events is an unavailable option. You can only dig into old 



records. You cannot even ask questions of the participants. Every 
one of them is dead. 

But for many questions in science, you can rerun the event as 
many times as you like, examine it in new ways, test a wide range 
of alternative hypotheses. When new tools are devised, you can 
perform the experiment again and see what emerges from your 
improved sensitivity. In those historical sciences where you cannot 
arrange a rerun, you can examine related cases and begin to 
recognize their common components. We can't make stars 
explode at our convenience, nor can we repeatedly evolve through 
many trials a mammal from its ancestors. But we can simulate 
some of the physics of supernova explosions in the laboratory, and 
we can compare in staggering detail the genetic instructions of 
mammals and reptiles. 

The claim is also sometimes made that science is as arbitrary or 
irrational as all other claims to knowledge, or that reason itself is 
an illusion. The American revolutionary, Ethan Allen - leader of 
the Green Mountain Boys in their capture of Fort Ticonderoga - 
had some words on this subject: 

Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider 
whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if 
with reason, then they establish the principle that they are 
laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason 
(which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must 
do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they 
deserve a rational argument. 

The reader can judge the depth of this argument. 

Anyone who witnesses the advance of science first-hand sees an 
intensely personal undertaking. There are always a few - driven by 
simple wonder and great integrity, or by frustration with the inad- 
equacies of existing knowledge, or simply upset with themselves for 
their imagined inability to understand what everyone else can - who 
proceed to ask the devastating key questions. A few saintly person- 
alities stand out amidst a roiling sea of jealousies, ambition, backbit- 
ing, suppression of dissent, and absurd conceits. In some fields, 



highly productive fields, such behaviour is almost the norm. 

I think all that social turmoil and human weakness aids the 
enterprise of science. There is an established framework in which 
any scientist can prove another wrong and make sure everyone 
else knows about it. Even when our motives are base, we keep 
stumbling on something new. 

The American chemistry Nobel laureate Harold C. Urey once 
confided to me that as he got older (he was then in his seventies), 
he experienced increasingly concerted efforts to prove him wrong. 
He described it as 'the fastest gun in the West' syndrome: the 
young man who could outdraw the celebrated old gunslinger 
would inherit his reputation and the respect paid to him. It was 
annoying, he grumbled, but it did help direct the young whipper- 
snappers into important areas of research that they would never 
have entered on their own. 

Being human, scientists also sometimes engage in observational 
selection: they like to remember those cases when they've been 
right and forget when they've been wrong. But in many instances, 
what is 'wrong' is partly right, or stimulates others to find out 
what's right. One of the most productive astrophysicists of our 
time has been Fred Hoyle, responsible for monumental contribu- 
tions to our understanding of the evolution of stars, the synthesis 
of the chemical elements, cosmology and much else. Sometimes 
he's succeeded by being right before anyone else even understood 
that there was something that needed explaining. Sometimes he's 
succeeded by being wrong - by being so provocative, by suggest- 
ing such outrageous alternatives that the observers and experi- 
mentalists feel obliged to check it out. The impassioned and 
concerted effort to 'prove Fred wrong' has sometimes failed and 
sometimes succeeded. In almost every case, it has pushed forward 
the frontiers of knowledge. Even Hoyle at his most outrageous - 
for example, proposing that the influenza and HIV viruses are 
dropped down on Earth from comets, and that interstellar dust 
grains are bacteria - has led to significant advances in knowledge 
(although turning up nothing to support those particular notions.) 

It might be useful for scientists now and again to list some of their 
mistakes. It might play an instructive role in illuminating and 



demythologizing the process of science and in enlightening 
younger scientists. Even Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles 
Darwin, Gregor Mendel and Albert Einstein made serious mis- 
takes. But the scientific enterprise arranges things so that team- 
work prevails: what one of us, even the most brilliant among us, 
misses, another of us, even someone much less celebrated and 
capable, may detect and rectify. 

For myself, I've tended in past books to recount some of the 
occasions when I've been right. Let me here mention a few of the 
cases where I've been wrong: at a time when no spacecraft had 
been to Venus, I thought at first that the atmospheric pressure was 
several times that on Earth, rather than many tens of times. I 
thought the clouds of Venus were made mainly of water, when 
they turn out to be only 25 per cent water. I thought there might 
be plate tectonics on Mars, when close-up spacecraft observations 
now show hardly a hint of plate tectonics. I thought the highish 
infrared temperatures of Titan might be due to a sizeable green- 
house effect there; instead, it turns out, it is caused by a 
stratospheric temperature inversion. Just before Iraq torched the 
Kuwaiti oil wells in January 1991, I warned that so much smoke 
might get so high as to disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia; 
as events transpired, it was pitch black at noon and the tempera- 
tures dropped 4-6°C over the Persian Gulf, but not much smoke 
reached stratospheric altitudes and Asia was spared. I did not 
sufficiently stress the uncertainty of the calculations. 

Different scientists have different speculative styles, some being 
much more cautious than others. As long as new ideas are testable 
and scientists are not overly dogmatic, no harm is done; indeed, 
considerable progress can be made. In the first four instances I've 
just mentioned where I was wrong, I was trying to understand a 
distant world from a few clues in the absence of thorough 
spacecraft investigations. In the natural course of planetary explo- 
ration more data come in, and we find an army of old ideas 
ploughed down by an armamentarium of new facts. 

Postmodernists have criticized Kepler's astronomy because it 
emerged out of his medieval, monotheistic religious views; Darwin's 
evolutionary biology for being motivated by a wish to perpetuate the 



privileged social class from which he came, or to justify his supposed 
prior atheism; and so on. Some of these claims are just. Some are 
not. But why does it matter what biases and emotional predisposi- 
tions scientists bring to their studies, so long as they are scrupulously 
honest and other people with different proclivities check their 
results? Presumably no one would argue that the conservative view 
on the sum of fourteen and twenty-seven differs from the liberal 
view, or that the mathematical function that is its own derivative is 
the exponential in the northern hemisphere but some other function 
in the southern. Any regular periodic function can be represented to 
arbitrary accuracy by a Fourier series in Muslim as well as in Hindu 
mathematics. Non-commutative algebras (where A times B does not 
equal B times A) are as self-consistent and meaningful for speakers 
of Indo-European languages as for speakers of Finno-Ugric. Math- 
ematics might be prized or ignored, but it is equally true everywhere 
- independent of ethnicity, culture, language, religion, ideology. 

Towards the opposite extreme, there are questions such as 
whether abstract expressionism can be 'great' art, or rap 'great' 
music; whether it's more important to curb inflation or unemploy- 
ment; whether French culture is superior to German culture; or 
whether prohibitions against murder should apply to the nation 
state. Here the questions are oversimple, or the dichotomies false, 
or the answers dependent on unspoken assumptions. Here local 
biases might very well determine the answers. 

Where in this subjective continuum, from almost fully inde- 
pendent of cultural norms to almost wholly dependent on them, 
does science lie? Although issues of bias and cultural chauvinism 
certainly arise, and although its content is continually being 
refined, science is clearly much closer to mathematics than it is to 
fashion. The claim that its findings are in general arbitrary and 
biased is not merely tendentious, but specious. 

The historians Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob 
(in Telling the Truth About History, 1994) criticize Isaac Newton: 
he is said to have rejected the philosophical position of Descartes 
because it might challenge conventional religion and lead to social 
chaos and atheism. Such criticisms amount only to the charge that 
scientists are human. How Newton was buffeted by the intellec- 
tual currents of his time is of course of interest to the historian of 



ideas; but it has little bearing on the truth of his propositions. For 
them to be generally accepted, they must convince atheists and 
theists alike. This is just what happened. 

Appleby and her colleagues claim that 'When Darwin formu- 
lated his theory of evolution, he was an atheist and a materialist,' 
and suggest that evolution was a product of a purported atheist 
agenda. They have hopelessly confused cause and effect. Darwin 
was about to become a minister of the Church of England when 
the opportunity to sail on HMS Beagle presented itself. His 
religious ideas, as he himself described them, were at the time 
highly conventional. He found every one of the Anglican Articles 
of Faith entirely believable. Through his interrogation of Nature, 
through science, it slowly dawned on him that at least some of his 
religion was false. That's why he changed his religious views. 

Appleby and her colleagues are appalled at Darwin's descrip- 
tion of 'the low morality of savages . . . their insufficient powers 
of reasoning . . . [their] weak power of self-command', and state 
that 'now many people are shocked by his racism'. But there was 
no racism at all, as far as I can tell, in Darwin's comment. He was 
alluding to the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, suffering from 
grinding scarcity in the most barren and Antarctic province of 
Argentina. When he described a South American woman of 
African origin who threw herself to her death rather than submit 
to slavery, he noted that it was only prejudice that kept us from 
seeing her defiance in the same heroic light as we would a similar 
act by the proud matron of a noble Roman family. He was himself 
almost thrown off the Beagle by Captain FitzRoy for his militant 
opposition to the Captain's racism. Darwin was head and shoul- 
ders above most of his contemporaries in this regard. 

But again, even if he was not, how does it affect the truth or 
falsity of natural selection? Thomas Jefferson and George 
Washington owned slaves; Albert Einstein and Mohandas 
Gandhi were imperfect husbands and fathers. The list goes on 
indefinitely. We are all flawed and creatures of our times. Is it 
fair to judge us by the unknown standards of the future? Some 
of the habits of our age will doubtless be considered barbaric by 
later generations - perhaps for insisting that small children and 
even infants sleep alone instead of with their parents; or 



exciting nationalist passions as a means of gaining popular 
approval and achieving high political office; or allowing bribery 
and corruption as a way of life; or keeping pets; or eating 
animals and jailing chimpanzees; or criminalizing the use of 
euphoriants by adults; or allowing our children to grow up 

Occasionally, in retrospect, someone stands out. In my book, 
the English-born American revolutionary Thomas Paine is one 
such. He was far ahead of his time. He courageously opposed 
monarchy, aristocracy, racism, slavery, superstition and sexism 
when all of these constituted the conventional wisdom. He was 
unswerving in his criticism of conventional religion. He wrote in 
The Age of Reason: 'Whenever we read the obscene stories, the 
voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the 
unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is 
filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a 
demon than the word of God. It . . . has served to corrupt and 
brutalize mankind.' At the same time the book exhibited the 
deepest reverence for a Creator of the Universe whose existence 
Paine argued was apparent at a glance at the natural world. But 
condemning much of the Bible while embracing God seemed an 
impossible position to most of his contemporaries. Christian 
theologians concluded he was drunk, mad or corrupt. The Jewish 
scholar David Levi forbade his co-religionists from even touching, 
much less reading, the book. Paine was made to suffer so much for 
his views (including being thrown into prison after the French 
Revolution for being too consistent in his opposition to tyranny) 
that he became an embittered old man.* 

Yes, the Darwinian insight can be turned upside down and 
grotesquely misused: voracious robber barons may explain their 

* Paine was the author of the revolutionary pamphlet 'Common Sense'. Pub- 
lished on 10 January 1776, it sold over half a million copies in the next few 
months and stirred many Americans to the cause of independence. He was the 
author of the three best-selling books of the eighteenth century. Later 
generations reviled him for his social and religious views. Theodore Roosevelt 
called him a 'filthy little atheist' - despite his profound belief in God. He is 
probably the most illustrious American revolutionary uncommemorated by a 
monument in Washington, DC. 


cut-throat practices by an appeal to Social Darwinism; Nazis and 
other racists may call on 'survival of the fittest' to justify genocide. 
But Darwin did not make John D. Rockefeller or Adolf Hitler. 
Greed, the Industrial Revolution, the free enterprise system, and 
corruption of government by the monied are adequate to explain 
nineteenth-century capitalism. Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, social 
hierarchies, the long history of anti-Semitism in Germany, the 
Versailles Treaty, German child-rearing practices, inflation and 
the Depression seem adequate to explain Hitler's rise to power. 
Very like these or similar events would have transpired with or 
without Darwin. And modern Darwinism makes it abundantly 
clear that many less ruthless traits, some not always admired by 
robber barons and Fuhrers - altruism, general intelligence, com- 
passion - may be the key to survival. 

If we could censor Darwin, what other kinds of knowledge 
could also be censored? Who would do the censoring? Who 
among us is wise enough to know which information and insights 
we can safely dispense with, and which will be necessary ten or a 
hundred or a thousand years into the future? Surely we can exert 
some discretion on which kinds of machines and products it is 
safe to develop. We must in any case make such decisions, 
because we do not have the resources to pursue all possible 
technologies. But censoring knowledge, telling people what they 
must think, is the aperture to thought police, authoritarian 
government, foolish and incompetent decision-making and long- 
term decline. 

Fervid ideologues and authoritarian regimes find it easy and 
natural to impose their views and suppress the alternatives. Nazi 
scientists, such as the Nobel laureate physicist Johannes Stark, 
distinguished fanciful, imaginary 'Jewish science', including rela- 
tivity and quantum mechanics, from realistic, practical Aryan 
science'. Another example: A new era of the magical explanation 
of the world is rising,' said Adolf Hitler, 'an explanation based on 
will rather than knowledge. There is no truth, in either the moral 
or the scientific sense.' 

As he described it to me three decades later, in 1922 the 
American geneticist Hermann J. Muller flew from Berlin to 



Moscow in a light plane to witness the new Soviet society 
firsthand. He must have liked what he saw, because - after his 
discovery that radiation makes mutations (a discovery that would 
later win him a Nobel Prize) - he moved to Moscow to help 
establish modern genetics in the Soviet Union. But by the middle 
1930s a charlatan named Trofim Lysenko had caught the notice 
and then the enthusiastic support of Stalin. Lysenko argued that 
genetics - which he called 'Mendelism-Weissmanism-Morganism', 
after some of the founders of the field - had an unacceptable 
philosophical base, and that philosophically 'correct' genetics, 
genetics that paid proper obeisance to communist dialectical 
materialism, would yield very different results. In particular, 
Lysenko's genetics would permit an additional crop of winter 
wheat - welcome news to a Soviet economy reeling from Stalin's 
forced collectivization of agriculture. 

Lysenko's purported evidence was suspect, there were no 
experimental controls, and his broad conclusions flew in the face 
of an immense body of contradictory data. As Lysenko's power 
grew, Muller passionately argued that classical Mendelian genet- 
ics was in full harmony with dialectical materialism, while 
Lysenko, who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteris- 
tics and denied a material basis of heredity, was an 'idealist', or 
worse. Muller was strongly supported by N.I. Vavilov, erstwhile 
president of the Ail-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. 

In a 1936 address to the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, now 
presided over by Lysenko, Muller gave a stirring address that 
included these words: 

If the outstanding practitioners are going to support theories 
and opinions that are obviously absurd to everyone who 
knows even a little about genetics - such views as those 
recently put forward by President Lysenko and those who 
think as he does - then the choice before us will resemble the 
choice between witchcraft and medicine, between astrology 
and astronomy, between alchemy and chemistry. 

In a country of arbitrary arrests and police terror, this speech 
displayed exemplary - many thought foolhardy - integrity and 



courage. In The Vavilov Affair (1984), the Soviet emigre historian 
Mark Popovsky describes these words as being accompanied by 
'thunderous applause from the whole hall' and 'remembered by 
everyone still living who took part in the session'. 

Three months later, Muller was visited in Moscow by a Western 
geneticist who expressed astonishment at a widely circulated 
letter, signed by Muller, that condemned the prevalence of 
'Mendelism-Weissmanism-Morganism' in the West and that urged 
a boycott of the forthcoming International Congress of Genetics. 
Having never seen, much less signed, such a letter, an outraged 
Muller concluded that it was a forgery perpetrated by Lysenko. 
Muller promptly wrote an angry denunciation of Lysenko to 
Pravda and mailed a copy to Stalin. 

The next day Vavilov came to Muller in a state of some 
agitation, informing him that he, Muller, had just volunteered to 
serve in the Spanish Civil War. The letter to Pravda had put 
Muller's life in danger. He left Moscow the next day, just evading, 
so he was later told, the NKVD, the secret police. Vavilov was not 
so lucky, and perished in 1943 in Siberia. 

With the continuing support of Stalin and later of Khrushchev, 
Lysenko ruthlessly suppressed classical genetics. Soviet school 
biology texts in the early 1960s had as little about chromosomes 
and classical genetics as many American school biology texts have 
about evolution today. But no new crop of winter wheat grew; 
incantations of the phrase 'dialectical materialism' went unheard 
by the DNA of domesticated plants; Soviet agriculture remained 
in the doldrums; and today, partly for this reason, Russia - 
world-class in many other sciences - is still almost hopelessly 
backward in molecular biology and genetic engineering. Two 
generations of modern biologists have been lost. Lysenkoism was 
not overthrown until 1964, in a series of debates and votes at the 
Soviet Academy of Sciences - one of the few institutions to 
maintain a degree of independence from the leaders of party and 
state - in which the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov played an 
outstanding role. 

Americans tend to shake their heads in astonishment at the 
Soviet experience. The idea that some state-endorsed ideology 
or popular prejudice would hogtie scientific progress seems 



unthinkable. For two hundred years Americans have prided 
themselves on being a practical, pragmatic, nonideological 
people. And yet anthropological and psychological pseudo- 
science has flourished in the United States - on race, for 
example. Under the guise of 'creationism', a serious effort 
continues to be made to prevent evolutionary theory - the most 
powerful integrating idea in all of biology, and essential for 
other sciences ranging from astronomy to anthropology - from 
being taught in the schools. 

Science is different from many another human enterprise - not, of 
course, in its practitioners' being influenced by the culture they 
grew up in, nor in sometimes being right and sometimes wrong 
(which are common to every human activity), but in its passion for 
framing testable hypotheses, in its search for definitive experi- 
ments that confirm or deny ideas, in the vigour of its substantive 
debate, and in its willingness to abandon ideas that have been 
found wanting. If we were not aware of our own limitations, 
though, if we were not seeking further data, if we were unwilling 
to perform controlled experiments, if we did not respect the 
evidence, we would have very little leverage in our quest for the 
truth. Through opportunism and timidity we might then be 
buffeted by every ideological breeze, with nothing of lasting value 
to hang on to. 



Newton's Sleep 

May God keep us from single vision and Newton's sleep. 

William Blake, 
from a poem included in a letter 
to Thomas Butts (1802) 

[IJgnorance more frequently begets confidence than does 
knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who 
know much, who so positively assert that this or that 
problem will never be solved by science. 

Charles Darwin, Introduction, 
The Descent of Man (1871) 

By 'Newton's sleep', the poet, painter and revolutionary 
William Blake seems to have meant a tunnel vision in the 
perspective of Newton's physics, as well as Newton's own (incom- 
plete) disengagement from mysticism. Blake thought the idea of 
atoms and particles of light amusing, and Newton's influence on 
our species 'satanic'. A common critique of science is that it is too 
narrow. Because of our well-demonstrated fallibilities, it rules out 
of court, beyond serious discourse, a wide range of uplifting 
images, playful notions, earnest mysticism and stupefying won- 
ders. Without physical evidence, science does not admit spirits, 
souls, angels, devils or dharma bodies of the Buddha. Or alien 



The American psychologist Charles Tart, who believes the 
evidence for extrasensory perception is convincing, writes: 

An important factor in the current popularity of 'New Age' 
ideas is a reaction against the dehumanizing, despiritualizing 
effects of scientism, the philosophical belief (masquerading as 
objective science and held with the emotional tenacity of 
born-again fundamentalism) that we are nothing but material 
beings. To unthinkingly embrace anything and everything 
labeled 'spiritual' or 'psychic' or 'New Age' is, of course, 
foolish, for many of these ideas are factually wrong, however 
noble or inspiring they are. On the other hand, this New Age 
interest is a legitimate recognition of some of the realities of 
human nature: People have always had and continue to have 
experiences that seem to be 'psychic' or 'spiritual'. 

But why should 'psychic' experiences challenge the idea that we 
are made of matter and nothing but? There is very little doubt 
that, in the everyday world, matter (and energy) exist. The 
evidence is all around us. In contrast, as I've mentioned earlier, 
the evidence for something non-material called 'spirit' or 'soul' is 
very much in doubt. Of course each of us has a rich internal life. 
Considering the stupendous complexity of matter, though, how 
could we possibly prove that our internal life is not wholly due to 
matter? Granted, there is much about human consciousness that 
we do not fully understand and cannot yet explain in terms of 
neurobiology. Humans have limitations, and no one knows this 
better than scientists. But a multitude of aspects of the natural 
world that were considered miraculous only a few generations ago 
are now thoroughly understood in terms of physics and chemistry. 
At least some of the mysteries of today will be comprehensively 
solved by our descendants. The fact that we cannot now produce a 
detailed understanding of, say, altered states of consciousness in 
terms of brain chemistry no more implies the existence of a 'spirit 
world' than a sunflower following the Sun in its course across the 
sky was evidence of a literal miracle before we knew about 
phototropism and plant hormones. 

And if the world does not in all respects correspond to our 


Newton's Sleep 

wishes, is this the fault of science, or of those who would impose 
their wishes on the world? All the mammals - and many other 
animals as well - experience emotions: fear, lust, hope, pain, love, 
hate, the need to be led. Humans may brood about the future 
more, but there is nothing in our emotions unique to us. On the 
other hand, no other species does science as much or as well as 
we. How then can science be 'dehumanizing'? 

Still, it seems so unfair: some of us starve to death before we're 
out of infancy, while others - by an accident of birth - live out 
their lives in opulence and splendour. We can be born into an 
abusive family or a reviled ethnic group, or start out with some 
deformity; we go through life with the deck stacked against us, 
and then we die, and that's it? Nothing but a dreamless and 
endless sleep? Where's the justice in this? This is stark and brutal 
and heartless. Shouldn't we have a second chance on a level 
playing field? How much better if we were born again in circum- 
stances that took account of how well we played our part in the 
last life, no matter how stacked against us the deck was then. Or if 
there were a time of judgement after we die, then - so long as we 
did well with the persona we were given in this life, and were 
humble and faithful and all the rest - we should be rewarded by 
living joyfully until the end of time in a permanent refuge from the 
agony and turmoil of the world. That's how it would be if the 
world were thought out, preplanned, fair. That's how it would be 
if those suffering from pain and torment were to receive the 
consolation they deserve. 

So societies that teach contentment with our present station 
in life, in expectation of post mortem reward, tend to inoculate 
themselves against revolution. Further, fear of death, which in 
some respects is adaptive in the evolutionary struggle for 
existence, is maladaptive in warfare. Those cultures that teach 
an afterlife of bliss for heroes - or even for those who just did 
what those in authority told them - might gain a competitive 

Thus, the idea of a spiritual part of our nature that survives 
death, the notion of an afterlife, ought to be easy for religions and 
nations to sell. This is not an issue on which we might anticipate 
widespread scepticism. People will want to believe it, even if the 



evidence is meagre to nil. True, brain lesions can make us lose 
major segments of our memory, or convert us from manic to 
placid, or vice versa; and changes in brain chemistry can convince 
us there's a massive conspiracy against us, or make us think we 
hear the Voice of God. But as compelling testimony as this 
provides that our personality, character, memory - if you will, 
soul - resides in the matter of the brain, it is easy not to focus on 
it, to find ways to evade the weight of the evidence. 

And if there are powerful social institutions insisting that there 
is an afterlife, it should be no surprise that dissenters tend to be 
sparse, quiet and resented. Some Eastern, Christian and New Age 
religions, as well as Platonism, hold that the world is unreal, that 
suffering, death and matter itself are illusions; and that nothing 
really exists except 'Mind'. In contrast, the prevailing scientific 
view is that the mind is how we perceive what the brain does; i.e., 
it's a property of the hundred trillion neural connections in the 

There is a strangely waxing academic opinion, with roots in the 
1960s, that holds all views to be equally arbitrary and 'true' or 
'false' to be a delusion. Perhaps it is an attempt to turn the tables 
on scientists who have long argued that literary criticism, religion, 
aesthetics, and much of philosophy and ethics are mere subjective 
opinion, because they cannot be demonstrated like a theorem in 
Euclidean geometry nor put to experimental test. 

There are people who want everything to be possible, to have 
their reality unconstrained. Our imagination and our needs 
require more, they feel, than the comparatively little that science 
teaches we may be reasonably sure of. Many New Age gurus - the 
actress Shirley MacLaine among them - go so far as to embrace 
solipsism, to assert that the only reality is their own thoughts. 'I 
am God,' they actually say. 'I really think we are creating our own 
reality,' MacLaine once told a sceptic. 'I think I'm creating you 
right here.' 

If I dream of being reunited with a dead parent or child, who is 
to tell me that it didn't really happen? If I have a vision of myself 
floating in space looking down on the Earth, maybe I was really 
there; who are some scientists, who didn't even share the experi- 
ence, to tell me that it's all in my head? If my religion teaches that 


Newton's Sleep 

it is the inalterable and inerrant word of God that the Universe is a 
few thousand years old, then scientists are being offensive and 
impious, as well as mistaken, when they claim it's a few billion. 

Irritatingly, science claims to set limits on what we can do, even 
in principle. Who says we can't travel faster than light? They used 
to say that about sound, didn't they? Who's going to stop us, if we 
have really powerful instruments, from measuring the position 
and the momentum of an electron simultaneously? Why can't we, 
if we're very clever, build a perpetual motion machine 'of the first 
kind' (one that generates more energy than is supplied to it), or a 
perpetual motion machine 'of the second kind' (one that never 
runs down)? Who dares to set limits on human ingenuity? 

In fact, Nature does. In fact, a fairly comprehensive and very 
brief statement of the laws of Nature, of how the Universe works, 
is contained in just such a list of prohibited acts. Tellingly, 
pseudoscience and superstition tend to recognize no constraints in 
Nature. Instead, 'all things are possible'. They promise a limitless 
production budget, however often their adherents have been 
disappointed and betrayed. 

A related complaint is that science is too simple-minded, too 
'reductionist'; it naively imagines that in the final accounting there 
will be only a few laws of Nature - perhaps even rather simple 
ones - that explain everything, that the exquisite subtlety of the 
world, all the snow crystals, spiderweb latticework, spiral galax- 
ies, and flashes of human insight can ultimately be 'reduced' to 
such laws. Reductionism seems to pay insufficient respect to the 
complexity of the Universe. It appears to some as a curious hybrid 
of arrogance and intellectual laziness. 

To Isaac Newton - who in the minds of critics of science 
personifies 'single vision' - it looked like a clockwork Universe. 
Literally. The regular, predictable orbital motions of the planets 
around the Sun, or the Moon around the Earth, were described to 
high precision by essentially the same differential equation that 
predicts the swing of a pendulum or the oscillation of a spring. We 
have a tendency today to think we occupy some exalted vantage 
point, and to pity the poor Newtonians for having so limited a 
world view. But within certain reasonable limitations, the same 



harmonic equations that describe clockwork really do describe the 
motions of astronomical objects throughout the Universe. This is 
a profound, not a trivial parallelism. 

Of course, there are no gears in the solar system, and the 
component parts of the gravitational clockwork do not touch. 
Planets generally have more complicated motions than pendulums 
and springs. Also, the clockwork model breaks down in certain 
circumstances: over very long periods of time, the gravitational 
tugs of distant worlds - tugs that might seem wholly insignificant 
over a few orbits - can build up, and some little world can go 
unexpectedly careening out of its accustomed course. However, 
something like chaotic motion is also known in pendulum clocks; 
if we displace the bob too far from the perpendicular, a wild and 
ugly motion ensues. But the solar system keeps better time than 
any mechanical clock, and the whole idea of keeping time comes 
from the observed motion of the Sun and stars. 

The astonishing fact is that similar mathematics applies so well 
to planets and to clocks. It needn't have been this way. We didn't 
impose it on the Universe. That's the way the Universe is. If this is 
reductionism, so be it. 

Until the middle twentieth century, there had been a strong 
belief - among theologians, philosophers and many biologists - 
that life was not 'reducible' to the laws of physics and chemistry, 
that there was a 'vital force', an 'entelechy', a tao, a mana that 
made living things go. It 'animated' life. It was impossible to see 
how mere atoms and molecules could account for the intricacy and 
elegance, the fitting of form to function, of a living thing. The 
world's religions were invoked: God or the gods breathed life, 
soul-stuff, into inanimate matter. The eighteenth-century chemist 
Joseph Priestley tried to find the 'vital force'. He weighed a mouse 
just before and just after it died. It weighed the same. All such 
attempts have failed. If there is soul-stuff, evidently it weighs 
nothing, that is, it is not made of matter. 

Nevertheless, even biological materialists entertained reserva- 
tions; perhaps, if not plant, animal, fungal and microbial souls, 
some still undiscovered principle of science was needed to under- 
stand life. For example, the British physiologist J.S. Haldane 
(father of J. B.S. Haldane) asked in 1932: 


Newton's Sleep 

What intelligible account can the mechanistic theory of life 
give of the . . . recovery from disease and injuries? Simply 
none at all, except that these phenomena are so complex and 
strange that as yet we cannot understand them. It is exactly 
the same with the closely related phenomena of reproduc- 
tion. We cannot by any stretch of the imagination conceive a 
delicate and complex mechanism which is capable, like a 
living organism, of reproducing itself indefinitely often. 

But only a few decades later and our knowledge of immunology 
and molecular biology have enormously clarified these once 
impenetrable mysteries. 

I remember very well when the molecular structure of DNA 
and the nature of the genetic code were first elucidated in the 
1950s and 1960s, how biologists who studied whole organisms 
accused the new proponents of molecular biology of reductionism. 
('They'll never understand even a worm with their DNA.') Of 
course reducing everything to a 'vital force' is no less reduction- 
ism. But it is now clear that all life on Earth, every single living 
thing, has its genetic information encoded in its nucleic acids and 
employs fundamentally the same codebook to implement the 
hereditary instructions. We have learned how to read the code. 
The same few dozen organic molecules are used over and over 
again in biology for the widest variety of functions. Genes bearing 
significant responsibility for cystic fibrosis and breast cancer have 
been identified. The 1.8 million rungs of the DNA ladder of the 
bacterium Haemophilis influenzae, comprising its 1,743 genes, 
have been sequenced. The specific function of most of these genes 
is beautifully detailed - from the manufacture and folding of 
hundreds of complex molecules, to protection against heat and 
antibiotics, to increasing the mutation rate, to making identical 
copies of the bacterium. Much of the genomes of many other 
organisms (including the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans) 
have now been mapped. Molecular biologists are busily recording 
the sequence of the three billion nucleotides that specify how to 
make a human being. In another decade or two, they'll be done. 
(Whether the benefits will ultimately exceed the risks seems by no 
means certain.) 



The continuity between atomic physics, molecular chemistry, 
and that holy of holies, the nature of reproduction and heredity, 
has now been established. No new principle of science need be 
invoked. It looks as if there are a small number of simple facts that 
can be used to understand the enormous intricacy and variety of 
living things. (Molecular genetics also teaches that each organism 
has its own particularity.) 

Reductionism is even better established in physics and chemis- 
try. I will later describe the unexpected coalescence of our 
understanding of electricity, magnetism, light and relativity into a 
single framework. We've known for centuries that a handful of 
comparatively simple laws not only explains but quantitatively and 
accurately predicts a breathtaking variety of phenomena, not just 
on Earth but through the entire Universe. 

We hear - for example from the theologian Langdon Gilkey in 
his Nature, Reality and the Sacred - that the notion of the laws of 
Nature being everywhere the same is simply a preconception 
imposed on the Universe by fallible scientists and their social 
milieu. He longs for other kinds of 'knowledge', as valid in their 
contexts as science is in its. But the order of the Universe is not an 
assumption; it's an observed fact. We detect the light from distant 
quasars only because the laws of electromagnetism are the same 
ten billion light years away as here. The spectra of those quasars 
are recognizable only because the same chemical elements are 
present there as here, and because the same laws of quantum 
mechanics apply. The motion of galaxies around one another 
follows familiar Newtonian gravity. Gravitational lenses and 
binary pulsar spin-downs reveal general relativity in the depths of 
space. We could have lived in a Universe with different laws in 
every province, but we do not. This fact cannot but elicit feelings 
of reverence and awe. 

We might have lived in a Universe in which nothing could be 
understood by a few simple laws, in which Nature was complex 
beyond our abilities to understand, in which laws that apply on 
Earth are invalid on Mars, or in a distant quasar. But the evidence 
- not the preconceptions, the evidence - proves otherwise. 
Luckily for us, we live in a Universe in which much can be 
'reduced' to a small number of comparatively simple laws of 


Newton's Sleep 

Nature. Otherwise we might have lacked the intellectual capacity 
and grasp to comprehend the world. 

Of course, we may make mistakes in applying a reductionist 
programme to science. There may be aspects which, for all we 
know, are not reducible to a few comparatively simple laws. But 
in the light of the findings in the last few centuries, it seems foolish 
to complain about reductionism. It is not a deficiency but one of 
the chief triumphs of science. And, it seems to me, its findings are 
perfectly consonant with many religions (although it does not 
prove their validity). Why should a few simple laws of Nature 
explain so much and hold sway throughout this vast Universe? 
Isn't this just what you might expect from a Creator of the 
Universe? Why should some religious people oppose the reduc- 
tionist programme in science, except out of some misplaced love 
of mysticism? 

Attempts to reconcile religion and science have been on the religious 
agenda for centuries - at least for those who did not insist on Biblical 
and Qu'ranic literalism with no room for allegory or metaphor. 

The crowning achievements of Roman Catholic theology are the 
Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles (Against the 
Gentiles') of St Thomas Aquinas. Out of the maelstrom of sophisti- 
cated Islamic philosophy that tumbled into Christendom in the 
twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the books of the ancient 
Greeks, especially Aristotle, works even on casual inspection of high 
accomplishment. Was this ancient learning compatible with God's 
Holy Word?* In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas set himself the task 
of reconciling 631 questions between Christian and classical sources. 
But how to do this where a clear dispute arises? It cannot be 
accomplished without some supervening organizing principle, some 
superior way to know the world. Often, Aquinas appealed to 
common sense and the natural world, i.e., science used as an 
error-correcting device. With some contortion of both common 
sense and Nature, he managed to reconcile all 631 problems. 
(Although when push came to shove, the desired answer was simply 

* This was no dilemma for many others. 'I believe; therefore I understand' said 
St Anselm in the eleventh century. 



assumed. Faith always got the nod over Reason.) Similar attempts at 
reconciliation permeate Talmudic and post-Talmudic Jewish litera- 
ture and medieval Islamic philosophy. 

But tenets at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically. 
This in itself makes some religious bureaucrats and believers 
wary of science. Is the Eucharist, as the Church teaches, in fact 
and not just as productive metaphor, the flesh of Jesus Christ, 
or is it, chemically, microscopically and in other ways, just a 
wafer handed to you by a priest?* Will the world be destroyed 
at the end of the 52-year Venus cycle unless humans are 
sacrificed to the gods?* Does the occasional uncircumcised 
Jewish man fare worse than his co-religionists who abide by the 
ancient covenant in which God demands a piece of foreskin 
from every male worshipper? Are there humans populating 
innumerable other planets, as the Latter Day Saints teach? 
Were whites created from blacks by a mad scientist, as the 
Nation of Islam asserts? Would the Sun indeed not rise if the 
Hindu sacrificial rite is omitted (as we are assured would be the 
case in the Satapatha Brahmana)? 

We can gain some insight into the human roots of prayer by 
examining those of unfamiliar religions and cultures. Here, for 
example, is what is written in a cuneiform inscription on a 
Babylonian cylinder seal from the Second Millennium BC: 

Oh, Ninlil, Lady of the Lands, in your marriage bed, in the 
abode of your delight, intercede for me with Enlil, your 
beloved. [Signed] Mili-Shipak, Shatammu of Ninmah. 

* There was a time when the answer to this question was a matter of life or death. 
Miles Phillips was an English sailor, stranded in Spanish Mexico. He and his 
fellows were brought up before the Inquisition in the year 1574. They were 
asked 'Whether we did not believe that the Host of bread which the priest did 
hold up over his head, and the wine that was in the chalice, was the very true 
and perfect body and blood of our Saviour Christ, Yea or No? To which,' 
Phillips adds, 'if we answered not "Yea!" then there was no way but death.' 
f Since this Mesoamerican ritual has not really been practised for five centuries, 
we have the perspective to reflect on the tens of thousands of willing and 
unwilling sacrifices to the Aztec and Mayan gods who reconciled themselves to 
their fates with the confident faith that they were dying to save the Universe. 


Newton's Sleep 

It's been a long time since there's been a Shatammu in Ninmah, or 
even a Ninmah. Despite the fact that Enlil and Ninlil were major 
gods - people all over the civilized western world had prayed to 
them for two thousand years - was poor Mili-Shipak in fact 
praying to a phantom, to a societally condoned product of his 
imagination? And if so, what about us? Or is this blasphemy, a 
forbidden question, as doubtless it was among the worshippers of 

Does prayer work at all? Which ones? 

There's a category of prayer in which God is begged to 
intervene in human history or just to right some real or imagined 
injustice or natural calamity - for example, when a bishop from 
the American West prays for God to intervene and end a 
devastating dry spell. Why is the prayer needed? Didn't God 
know of the drought? Was he unaware that it threatened the 
bishop's parishioners? What is implied here about the limitations 
of a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient deity? The bishop 
asked his followers to pray as well. Is God more likely to intervene 
when many pray for mercy or justice than when only a few do? Or 
consider the following request, printed in 1994 in The Prayer and 
Action Weekly News: Iowa's Weekly Christian Information 

Can you join me in praying that God will burn down the 
Planned Parenthood in Des Moines in a manner no one can 
mistake for any human torching, which impartial investiga- 
tors will have to attribute to miraculous (unexplainable) 
causes, and which Christians will have to attribute to the 
Hand of God? 

We've discussed faith-healing. What about longevity through 
prayer? The Victorian statistician Francis Galton argued that, 
other things being equal, British monarchs ought to be very 
long-lived, because millions of people all over the world daily 
intoned the heartfelt mantra 'God Save the Queen' (or King). 
Yet, he showed, if anything, they don't live as long as other 
members of the wealthy and pampered aristocratic class. Tens of 
millions of people in concert publicly wished (although they did 



not exactly pray) that Mao Zedong would live 'for ten thousand 
years'. Nearly everyone in ancient Egypt exhorted the gods to let 
the Pharaoh live 'forever'. These collective prayers failed. Their 
failure constitutes data. 

By making pronouncements that are, even if only in principle, 
testable, religions, however unwillingly, enter the arena of sci- 
ence. Religions can no longer make unchallenged assertions about 
reality so long as they do not seize secular power, provided they 
cannot coerce belief. 

This, in turn, has infuriated some followers of some religions. 
Occasionally they threaten sceptics with the direst imaginable 
penalties. Consider the following high stakes alternative by Wil- 
liam Blake in his innocuously titled Auguries of Innocence: 

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt 
The rotting Grave shall ne'er get out. 
He who respects the Infant's Faith 
Triumphs over Hell & Death 

Of course many religions, devoted to reverence, awe, ethics, 
ritual, community, family, charity, and political and economic 
justice, are in no way challenged, but rather uplifted, by the 
findings of science. There is no necessary conflict between science 
and religion. On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, 
and each needs the other. Open and vigorous debate, even the 
consecration of doubt, is a Christian tradition going back to John 
Milton's Areopagitica (1644). Some of mainstream Christianity 
and Judaism embraces and even anticipated at least a portion of 
the humility, self-criticism, reasoned debate, and questioning of 
received wisdom that the best of science offers. But other sects, 
sometimes called conservative or fundamentalist - and today they 
seem to be in the ascendant, with the mainstream religions almost 
inaudible and invisible - have chosen to make a stand on matters 
subject to disproof, and thus have something to fear from science. 

The religious traditions are often so rich and multivariate that 
they offer ample opportunity for renewal and revision, again 
especially when their sacred books can be interpreted metaphori- 
cally and allegorically. There is thus a middle ground of confessing 


Newton's Sleep 

past errors, as the Roman Catholic Church did in its 1992 
acknowledgement that Galileo was right after all, that the Earth 
does revolve around the Sun: three centuries late, but courageous 
and most welcome none the less. Modern Roman Catholicism has 
no quarrel with the Big Bang, with a Universe 15 billion or so 
years old, with the first living things arising from prebiological 
molecules, or with humans evolving from ape-like ancestors - 
although it has special opinions on 'ensoulment'. Most main- 
stream Protestant and Jewish faiths take the same sturdy position. 

In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what 
their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were 
disproved by science. When I put this question to the current, 
Fourteenth, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conserva- 
tive or fundamentalist religious leaders do: in such a case, he said, 
Tibetan Buddhism would have to change. 

Even, I asked, if it's a really central tenet, like (I searched for an 
example) reincarnation? 

Even then, he answered. 

However, he added with a twinkle, it's going to be hard to 
disprove reincarnation. 

Plainly, the Dalai Lama is right. Religious doctrine that is 
insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the 
advance of science. The grand idea, common to many faiths, of a 
Creator of the Universe is one such doctrine - difficult alike to 
demonstrate or to dismiss. 

Moses Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, held that 
God could be truly known only if there were free and open study 
of both physics and theology [I, 55]. What would happen if science 
demonstrated an infinitely old Universe? Then theology would 
have to be seriously revamped [II, 25]. Indeed, this is the one 
conceivable finding of science that could disprove a Creator - 
because an infinitely old universe would never have been created. 
It would have always been here. 

There are other doctrines, interests and concerns that also 
worry about what science will find out. Perhaps, they suggest, it's 
better not to know. If men and women turn out to have different 
hereditary propensities, won't this be used as an excuse for the 
former to suppress the latter? If there's a genetic component of 



violence, might this justify repression of one ethnic group by 
another, or even precautionary incarceration? If mental illness is 
just brain chemistry, doesn't this unravel our efforts to keep a 
grasp on reality or to be responsible for our actions? If we are not 
the special handiwork of the Creator of the Universe, if our basic 
moral laws are merely invented by fallible lawgivers, isn't our 
struggle to maintain an orderly society undermined? 

I suggest that in every one of these cases, religious or secular, 
we are much better off if we know the best available approxima- 
tion to the truth, and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of 
the errors our interest group or belief system has committed in the 
past. In every case the imagined dire consequences of the truth 
being generally known are exaggerated. And again, we are not 
wise enough to know which lies, or even which shadings of the 
facts, can competently serve some higher social purpose, espe- 
cially in the long run. 



When Scientists Know Sin 

The mind of man - how far will it advance? Where will its 
daring impudence find limits? If human villainy and human 
life shall wax in due proportion, if the son shall always grow 
in wickedness past his father, the gods must add another 
world to this that all the sinners may have space enough. 

Hippolytus (428 BC) 

In a post-war meeting with President Harry S Truman, J. Robert 
Oppenheimer - the scientific director of the Manhattan nuclear 
weapons project - mournfully commented that scientists had bloody 
hands; they had now known sin. Afterwards, Truman instructed his 
aides that he never wished to see Oppenheimer again. Sometimes 
scientists are castigated for doing evil, and sometimes for warning 
about the evil uses to which science may be put. 

More often, science is taken to task because it and its 
products are said to be morally neutral, ethically ambiguous, as 
readily employed in the service of evil as of good. This is an old 
indictment. It goes back probably to the flaking of stone tools 
and the domestication of fire. Since technology has been with 
our ancestral line from before the first human, since we are a 
technological species, this problem is not so much one of 
science as of human nature. By this I don't mean that science 
has no responsibility for the misuse of its findings. It has 



profound responsibility, and the more powerful its products the 
greater its responsibility. 

Like assault weapons and market derivatives, the technologies 
that allow us to alter the global environment that sustains us 
should mandate caution and prudence. Yes, it's the same old 
humans who have made it so far. Yes, we're developing new 
technologies as we always have. But when the weaknesses we've 
always had join forces with a capacity to do harm on an unprec- 
edented planetary scale, something more is required of us - an 
emerging ethic that also must be established on an unprecedented 
planetary scale. 

Sometimes scientists try to have it both ways: to take credit for 
those applications of science that enrich our lives, but to distance 
themselves from the instruments of death, intentional and inadvert- 
ent, that also trace back to scientific research. The Australian 
philosopher John Passmore writes in his book Science and Its Critics: 

The Spanish Inquisition sought to avoid direct responsibility 
for the burning of heretics by handing them over to the 
secular arm; to burn them itself, it piously explained, would 
be wholly inconsistent with its Christian principles. Few of us 
would allow the Inquisition thus easily to wipe its hands clean 
of bloodshed; it knew quite well what would happen. 
Equally, where the technological application of scientific 
discoveries is clear and obvious - as when a scientist works on 
nerve gases - he cannot properly claim that such applications 
are 'none of his business', merely on the grounds that it is the 
military forces, not scientists, who use the gases to disable or 
kill. This is even more obvious when the scientist deliberately 
offers help to governments, in exchange for funds. If a 
scientist, or a philosopher, accepts funds from some such 
body as an office of naval research, then he is cheating if he 
knows his work will be useless to them and must take some 
responsibility for the outcome if he knows that it will be 
useful. He is subject, properly subject, to praise or blame in 
relation to any innovations which flow from his work. 

An important case history is provided by the career of the 


When Scientists Know Sin 

Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller. Teller was marked at a 
young age by the Bela Kuhn communist revolution in Hungary, in 
which the property of middle-class families like his was expropri- 
ated, and by losing part of his leg in a streetcar accident, leaving 
him in permanent pain. His early contributions ranged from 
quantum mechanical selection rules and solid state physics to 
cosmology. It was he who chauffeured the physicist Leo Szilard to 
the vacationing Albert Einstein on Long Island in July 1939 - a 
meeting that led to the historic letter from Einstein to President 
Franklin Roosevelt urging, in view of both scientific and political 
events in Nazi Germany, that the United States develop a fission, 
or 'atomic' bomb. Recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, 
Teller arrived at Los Alamos and promptly refused to cooperate - 
not because he was dismayed at what an atomic bomb might do, 
but just the opposite: because he wanted to work on a much more 
destructive weapon, the fusion, or thermonuclear, or hydrogen 
bomb. (While there is a practical upper limit on the yield or 
destructive energy of an atomic bomb, there is no such limit for a 
hydrogen bomb. But a hydrogen bomb needs an atomic bomb as 

After the fission bomb was invented, after Germany and Japan 
surrendered, after the war was over, Teller remained a persistent 
advocate of what was called 'the Super', specifically intended to 
intimidate the Soviet Union. Concern about the rebuilding, 
toughened and militarized Soviet Union under Stalin and the 
national paranoia in America called McCarthyism, eased Teller's 
path. A substantial obstacle was offered, though, in the person of 
Oppenheimer, who had become the chairman of the General 
Advisory Committee to the post-war Atomic Energy Commis- 
sion. Teller provided critical testimony at a government hearing, 
questioning Oppenheimer's loyalty to the United States. Teller's 
involvement is generally thought to have played a major role in 
the aftermath: although Oppenheimer's loyalty was not exactly 
impugned by the review board, somehow his security clearance 
was denied, he was retired from the AEC, and Teller's way to the 
Super was greased. 

The technique for making a thermonuclear weapon is generally 
attributed to Teller and the mathematician Stanislas Ulam. Hans 



Bethe, the Nobel laureate physicist who headed the Theoretical 
Division at the Manhattan Project and who played a major role in 
the development of both the atomic and the hydrogen bombs, 
attests that Teller's original suggestion was flawed, and that the 
work of many people was necessary to bring the thermonuclear 
weapon to reality. With fundamental technical contributions from 
a young physicist named Richard Garwin, the first US thermonu- 
clear 'device' was exploded in 1952. It was too unwieldy to be 
carried by a missile or bomber; it just sat there where it was 
assembled and blew up. The first true hydrogen bomb was a 
Soviet invention exploded one year later. There has been debate 
on whether the Soviet Union would have developed a thermonu- 
clear weapon if the United States had not, and whether a US 
thermonuclear weapon was even needed to deter Soviet use of 
their hydrogen bomb, since the US by then possessed a substantial 
arsenal of fission weapons. The preponderance of current evi- 
dence is that the USSR, even before it exploded its first fission 
bomb, had a workable design for a thermonuclear weapon. It was 
'the next logical step'. But Soviet pursuit of fusion weapons was 
much aided by the knowledge, from espionage, that the Ameri- 
cans were working on them. 

From my point of view, the consequences of global nuclear war 
became much more dangerous with the invention of the hydrogen 
bomb, because airbursts of thermonuclear weapons are much 
more capable of burning cities, generating vast amounts of smoke, 
cooling and darkening the Earth, and inducing global-scale 
nuclear winter. This was perhaps the most controversial scientific 
debate I've been involved in (from about 1983-90). Much of the 
debate was politically driven. The strategic implications of nuclear 
winter were disquieting to those wedded to a policy of massive 
retaliation to deter a nuclear attack, or to those wishing to 
preserve the option of a massive first strike. In either case, the 
environmental consequences work the self-destruction of any 
nation launching large numbers of thermonuclear weapons even 
with no retaliation from the adversary. A major segment of the 
strategic policy of decades, and the reason for accumulating tens 
of thousands of nuclear weapons, suddenly became much less 


When Scientists Know Sin 

The global temperature declines predicted in the original (1983) 
nuclear winter scientific paper were 15-20°C; current estimates 
are 10-15°C. The two values are in good agreement considering 
the irreducible uncertainties in the calculations. Both temperature 
declines are much greater than the difference between current 
global temperatures and those of the last Ice Age. The long-term 
consequences of global thermonuclear war have been estimated 
by an international team of 200 scientists, who concluded that 
through nuclear winter the global civilization and most of the 
people on Earth, including those far from the northern mid- 
latitude target zone, would be at risk, mainly from starvation. If 
large-scale nuclear war ever occurs, with cities targeted, the effort 
of Edward Teller and his colleagues in the United States (and the 
counterpart team headed by Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet 
Union) might be responsible for lowering the curtain on the 
human future. The hydrogen bomb is by far the most horrific 
weapon ever invented. 

When nuclear winter was discovered in 1983, Teller was quick 
to argue both (1) that the physics was mistaken, and (2) that the 
discovery had been made years earlier under his tutelage at the 
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There is in fact no 
evidence for such a prior discovery, and considerable evidence 
that those in every nation charged to inform their national leaders 
of the effects of nuclear weapons had consistently overlooked 
nuclear winter. But if Teller is right, then it was unconscionable of 
him not to have disclosed the purported discovery to the affected 
parties - the citizens and leaders of his nation and the world. As in 
the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove, classifying the ultimate 
weapon - so no one knows that it exists or what it can do - is the 
ultimate absurdity. 

It seems to me impossible for any normal human being to be 
untroubled by helping to make such an invention, even putting 
nuclear winter aside. The stresses, conscious or unconscious, on 
those who take credit for the contrivance must be considerable. 
Whatever his actual contributions, Edward Teller has been widely 
described as the 'father' of the hydrogen bomb. In an admiring 
1954 article, Life magazine described his 'almost fanatic determi- 
nation' to build the hydrogen bomb. Much of his subsequent 



career can, I think, be understood as an attempt to justify what he 
begat. Teller has contended, not implausibly, that hydrogen 
bombs keep the peace, or at least prevent thermonuclear war, 
because the consequences of warfare between nuclear powers are 
now too dangerous. We haven't had a nuclear war yet, have we? 
But all such arguments assume that the nuclear-armed nations 
are and always will be, without exception, rational actors, and 
that bouts of anger and revenge and madness will never 
overtake their leaders (or military and secret police officers in 
charge of nuclear weapons). In the century of Hitler and Stalin, 
this seems ingenuous. 

Teller has been a major force in preventing a comprehensive 
treaty banning nuclear weapons tests. He made it much more 
difficult to accomplish the 1963 Limited (above-ground) Test Ban 
Treaty. His argument that above-ground testing was essential to 
maintain and 'improve' the nuclear arsenals, that ratifying the 
treaty would 'give away the future safety of our country' has 
proven specious. He has also been a vigorous proponent of the 
safety and cost-effectiveness of fission power plants, claiming 
himself to be the only casualty of the Three Mile Island nuclear 
accident in Pennsylvania in 1979; he had a heart attack, he says, 
debating the issue. 

Teller advocated exploding nuclear weapons from Alaska to 
South Africa, to dredge harbours and canals, to obliterate trou- 
blesome mountains, to do heavy earth-moving. When he pro- 
posed such a scheme to Queen Frederika of Greece, she is said to 
have responded, 'Thank you, Dr Teller, but Greece has enough 
quaint ruins already.' Want to test Einstein's general relativity? 
Then explode a nuclear weapon on the far side of the Sun, Teller 
proposed. Want to understand the chemical composition of the 
Moon? Then fly a hydrogen bomb to the Moon, explode it, and 
examine the spectrum of the flash and fireball. 

Also in the 1980s, Teller sold President Ronald Reagan the 
notion of Star Wars, called by them the 'Strategic Defense 
Initiative', SDI Reagan seems to have believed a highly imagina- 
tive story of Teller's that it was possible to build a desk-sized 
orbiting hydrogen-bomb-driven X-ray laser that would destroy 
10,000 Soviet warheads in flight, and provide genuine protection 


When Scientists Know Sin 

for the citizens of the United States in case of global thermo- 
nuclear war. 

It is claimed by apologists for the Reagan administration 
that, whatever the exaggerations in capability, some of it 
intentional, SDI was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet 
Union. There is no serious evidence in support of this conten- 
tion. Andrei Sakharov, Yevgeny Velikhov, Roald Sagdeev, and 
other scientists who advised President Mikhail Gorbachev 
made it clear that if the United States really went ahead with a 
Star Wars programme, the safest and cheapest Soviet response 
would be merely to augment its existing arsenal of nuclear 
weapons and delivery systems. In this way Star Wars could have 
increased, not decreased, the peril of thermonuclear war. At 
any rate, Soviet expenditures on space-based defences against 
American nuclear missiles were comparatively paltry, hardly of 
a magnitude to trigger a collapse of the Soviet economy. The 
fall of the USSR has much more to do with the failure of the 
command economy, growing awareness of the standard of 
living in the west, widespread disaffection from a moribund 
Communist ideology, and - although he did not intend such an 
outcome - Gorbachev's promotion of glasnost, or openness. 

Ten thousand American scientists and engineers publicly 
pledged they would not work on Star Wars or accept money from 
the SDI organization. This provides an example of widespread 
and courageous non-cooperation by scientists (at some conceiv- 
able personal cost) with a democratic government that had, 
temporarily at least, lost its way. 

Teller has also advocated the development of burrowing 
nuclear warheads, so that underground command centres and 
deeply buried shelters for the leadership (and their families) of an 
adversary nation might be dug down to and wiped out; and 
0.1-kiloton nuclear warheads that would saturate an enemy coun- 
try, obliterating its infrastructure 'without a single casualty'. 
Civilians would be alerted in advance. Nuclear war would be 

As I write, Edward Teller - still vigorous and retaining consid- 
erable intellectual powers into his late eighties - has mounted a 
campaign, with his counterpart in the former Soviet nuclear 



weapons establishment, to develop and explode new genera- 
tions of high-yield thermonuclear weapons in space, in order to 
destroy or deflect asteroids that might be on collision trajecto- 
ries with the Earth. I worry that premature experimentation 
with the orbits of nearby asteroids may involve extreme dangers 
for our species. 

Dr Teller and I have met privately. We've debated at 
scientific meetings, in the national media, and in a closed rump 
session of Congress. We've had strong disagreements, espe- 
cially on Star Wars, nuclear winter and asteroid defence. 
Perhaps all this has hopelessly coloured my view of him. 
Although he has always been a fervent anticommunist and 
technophile, as I look back over his life it seems to me I see 
something more in his desperate attempt to justify the hydro- 
gen bomb: its effects aren't as bad as you might think. It can be 
used to defend the world from other hydrogen bombs, for 
science, for civil engineering, to protect the population of the 
United States against an enemy's thermonuclear weapons, to 
wage war humanely, to save the planet from random hazards 
from space. Somehow, somewhere, he wants to believe that 
thermonuclear weapons, and he, will be acknowledged by the 
human species as its saviour and not its destroyer. 

When scientific research provides fallible nations and politi- 
cal leaders with formidable, indeed awesome powers, many 
dangers present themselves: one is that some of the scientists 
involved may lose all but a superficial semblance of objectivity. 
As always, power tends to corrupt. In this circumstance, the 
institution of secrecy is especially pernicious, and the checks 
and balances of a democracy become especially valuable. 
(Teller, who has flourished in the secrecy culture, has also 
repeatedly attacked it.) The CIA Inspector General com- 
mented in 1995 that 'absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely'. The 
most open and vigorous debate is often the only protection 
against the most perilous misuse of technology. The critical 
piece of the counterargument may be something obvious that 
many scientists or even lay people could come up with provided 
there were no penalties for speaking out. Or it might be 
something more subtle, something that would be noted by an 


When Scientists Know Sin 

obscure graduate student in some locale remote from Washington, 
DC, who, if the arguments were closely held and highly secret, 
would never have the opportunity to address the issue. 

What realm of human endeavour is not morally ambiguous? Even 
folk institutions that purport to give us advice on behaviour and 
ethics seem fraught with contradictions. Consider aphorisms - 
haste makes waste; yes, but a stitch in time saves nine. Better safe 
than sorry; but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Where there's 
smoke, there's fire; but you can't tell a book by its cover. A penny 
saved is a penny earned; but you can't take it with you. He who 
hesitates is lost; but fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Two 
heads are better than one; but too many cooks spoil the broth. 
There was a time when people planned or justified their actions on 
the basis of such contradictory platitudes. What is the moral 
responsibility of the aphorist? Or the Sun-sign astrologer, the 
Tarot card reader, the tabloid prophet? 

Or consider the mainstream religions. We are enjoined in 
Micah to do justly and love mercy; in Exodus we are forbidden to 
commit murder; in Leviticus we are commanded to love our 
neighbour as ourselves; and in the Gospels we are urged to love 
our enemies. Yet think of the rivers of blood spilled by fervent 
followers of the books in which these well-meaning exhortations 
are embedded. 

In Joshua and in the second half of Numbers is celebrated the 
mass murder of men, women, children, down to the domestic 
animals in city after city across the whole land of Canaan. Jericho 
is obliterated in a kherem, a 'holy war'. The only justification 
offered for this slaughter is the mass murderers' claim that, in 
exchange for circumcising their sons and adopting a particular set 
of rituals, their ancestors were long before promised that this land 
was their land. Not a hint of self-reproach, not a muttering of 
patriarchal or divine disquiet at these campaigns of extermination 
can be dug out of holy scripture. Instead, Joshua 'destroyed all 
that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded' (Joshua, x, 
40). And these events are not incidental, but central to the main 
narrative thrust of the Old Testament. Similar stories of mass 
murder (and in the case of the Amalekites, genocide) can be 



found in the books of Saul, Esther, and elsewhere in the Bible, 
with hardly a pang of moral doubt. It was all, of course, troubling 
to liberal theologians of a later age. 

It is properly said that the Devil can 'quote Scripture to his 
purpose'. The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory 
moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justifica- 
tion for nearly any action it proposes, from incest, slavery and 
mass murder to the most refined love, courage and self-sacrifice. 
And this moral multiple personality disorder is hardly restricted to 
Judaism and Christianity. You can find it deep within Islam, the 
Hindu tradition, indeed nearly all the world's religions. Perhaps 
then it is not so much scientists as people who are morally 

It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public 
to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or 
foreseeable through the use of science. Such a mission is, you 
might say, prophetic. Clearly the warnings need to be judicious 
and not more flamboyant than the dangers require; but if we must 
make errors, given the stakes, they should be on the side of safety. 

Among the !Kung San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, 
when two men, perhaps testosterone-inflamed, would begin to 
argue, the women would reach for their poison arrows and put the 
weapons out of harm's way. Today our poison arrows can destroy 
the global civilization and just possibly annihilate our species. The 
price of moral ambiguity is now too high. For this reason - and not 
because of its approach to knowledge - the ethical responsibility 
of scientists must also be high, extraordinarily high, unprecedent- 
edly high. I wish graduate science programmes explicitly and 
systematically raised these questions with fledgling scientists and 
engineers. And sometimes I wonder whether in our society, too, 
the women - and the children - will eventually put the poison 
arrows out of harm's way. 



The Marriage of Scepticism 
and Wonder 

Nothing is too wonderful to be true. 

Remark attributed to 
Michael Faraday (1791-1867) 

Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient 
guarantee of truth. 

Bertrand Russell, 

Mysticism and Logic (1929) 

When we are asked to swear in courts of law that we will tell 
'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth', we 
are being asked the impossible. It is simply beyond our powers. 
Our memories are fallible; even scientific truth is merely an 
approximation; and we are ignorant about nearly all of the 
Universe. Nevertheless, a life may depend on our testimony. To 
swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth 
to the limit of our abilities is a fair request. Without the qualifying 
phrase, though, it's simply out of touch. But such a qualification, 
however consonant with human reality, is unacceptable to any 
legal system. If everyone tells the truth only to a degree deter- 
mined by individual judgement, then incriminating or awkward 
facts might be withheld, events shaded, culpability hidden, 
responsibility evaded, and justice denied. So the law strives for an 
impossible standard of accuracy, and we do the best we can. 



In the jury selection process, the court needs to be reassured 
that the verdict will be based on evidence. It makes heroic efforts 
to weed out bias. It is aware of human imperfection. Does the 
potential juror personally know the district attorney, or the 
prosecutor, or the defence attorney? What about the judge or the 
other jurors? Has she formed an opinion about this case not from 
the facts laid out in court but from pre-trial publicity? Will she 
assign evidence from police officers greater or lesser weight than 
evidence from witnesses for the defence? Is she biased against the 
defendant's ethnic group? Does the potential juror live in the 
neighbourhood where the crimes were committed, and might that 
influence her judgement? Does she have a scientific background 
about matters on which expert witnesses will testify? (This is often 
a count against her.) Are any of her relatives or close family 
members employed in law enforcement or criminal law? Has she 
herself ever had any run-ins with police that might influence her 
judgement in the trial? Was any close friend or relative ever 
arrested on a similar charge? 

The American system of jurisprudence recognizes a wide range 
of factors, predispositions, prejudices and experiences that might 
cloud our judgement, or affect our objectivity, sometimes even 
without our knowing it. It goes to great, perhaps even extrava- 
gant, lengths to safeguard the process of judgement in a criminal 
trial from the human weaknesses of those who must decide on 
innocence or guilt. Even then, of course, the process sometimes 

Why would we settle for anything less when interrogating the 
natural world, or when attempting to decide on vital matters of 
politics, economics, religion and ethics? 

If it is to be applied consistently, science imposes, in exchange for 
its manifold gifts, a certain onerous burden: we are enjoined, no 
matter how uncomfortable it might be, to consider ourselves and 
our cultural institutions scientifically and not to accept uncritically 
whatever we're told; to surmount as best we can our hopes, 
conceits and unexamined beliefs; to view ourselves as we really 
are. Can we conscientiously and courageously follow planetary 
motion or bacterial genetics wherever the search may lead, but 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

declare the origin of matter or human behaviour off-limits? 
Because its explanatory power is so great, once you get the hang 
of scientific reasoning you're eager to apply it everywhere. 
However, in the course of looking deeply within ourselves, we 
may challenge notions that give comfort before the terrors of the 
world. I'm aware that some of the discussion in, say, the preceding 
chapter may have such a character. 

When anthropologists survey the thousands of distinct cul- 
tures and ethnicities that comprise the human family, they are 
struck by how few features there are that are givens, always 
present no matter how exotic the society. There are, for 
example, cultures - the Ik of Uganda is one - where all Ten 
Commandments seem to be systematically, institutionally 
ignored. There are societies that abandon their old and their 
newborn, that eat their enemies, that use seashells or pigs or 
young women for money. But they all have a strong incest 
taboo, they all use technology, and almost all believe in a 
supernatural world of gods and spirits, often connected with the 
natural environment they inhabit and the well-being of the 
plants and animals they eat. (The ones with a supreme god who 
lives in the sky tend to be the most ferocious - torturing their 
enemies for example. But this is a statistical correlation only; 
the causal link has not been established, although speculations 
naturally present themselves.) 

In every such society, there is a cherished world of myth and 
metaphor which co-exists with the workaday world. Efforts to 
reconcile the two are made, and any rough edges at the joints tend 
to be off-limits and ignored. We compartmentalize. Some scien- 
tists do this too, effortlessly stepping between the sceptical world 
of science and the credulous world of religious belief without 
skipping a beat. Of course, the greater the mismatch between 
these two worlds, the more difficult it is to be comfortable, with 
untroubled conscience, with both. 

In a life short and uncertain, it seems heartless to do anything 
that might deprive people of the consolation of faith when science 
cannot remedy their anguish. Those who cannot bear the burden 
of science are free to ignore its precepts. But we cannot have 
science in bits and pieces, applying it where we feel safe and 



ignoring it where we feel threatened - again, because we are not 
wise enough to do so. 

Except by sealing the brain off into separate air-tight compart- 
ments, how is it possible to fly in airplanes, listen to the radio or 
take antibiotics while holding that the Earth is around 10,000 
years old or that all Sagittarians are gregarious and affable? 

Have I ever heard a sceptic wax superior and contemptuous? 
Certainly. I've even sometimes heard, to my retrospective dismay, 
that unpleasant tone in my own voice. There are human imperfec- 
tions on both sides of this issue. Even when it's applied sensitively, 
scientific scepticism may come across as arrogant, dogmatic, 
heartless and dismissive of the feelings and deeply held beliefs of 
others. And, it must be said, some scientists and dedicated 
sceptics apply this tool as a blunt instrument, with little finesse. 
Sometimes it looks as if the sceptical conclusion came first, that 
contentions were dismissed before, not after, the evidence was 
examined. All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, 
self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our 
belief system as insufficiently well based - or who, like Socrates, 
merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven't thought of, or 
demonstrates that we've swept key underlying assumptions under 
the rug - it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It 
feels like a personal assault. 

The scientist who first proposed to consecrate doubt as a prime 
virtue of the inquiring mind made it clear that it was a tool and not 
an end in itself. Rene Descartes wrote, 

I did not imitate the sceptics who doubt only for doubting's 
sake, and pretend to be always undecided; on the contrary, 
my whole intention was to arrive at a certainty, and to dig 
away the drift and the sand until I reached the rock or the clay 

In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public 
concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore 
the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and 
pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the 
sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant 
with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they 
need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with 
kindness. None of us comes fully equipped. 

Clearly there are limits to the uses of scepticism. There is some 
cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort, 
consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is 
high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not 
keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky. Imagine 
that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in 
the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and 
inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep 
quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your 
moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to 
leave the cab - because you know that every silent assent will 
encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause 
him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent 
assent about mysticism and superstition - even when it seems to 
be doing a little good - we abet a general climate in which 
scepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous 
thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a pru- 
dent balance takes wisdom. 

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the 
Paranormal is an organization of scientists, academics, magicians 
and others dedicated to sceptical scrutiny of emerging or full- 
blown pseudosciences. It was founded by the University of 
Buffalo philosopher Paul Kurtz in 1976. I've been affiliated with it 
since its beginning. Its acronym, CSICOP, is pronounced 'sci-cop' 
- as if it's an organization of scientists performing a police 
function. Those wounded by CSICOP's analyses sometimes make 
just such a complaint: it's hostile to every new idea, they say, will 
go to absurd lengths in its knee-jerk debunking, is a vigilante 
organization, a New Inquisition, and so on. 

CSICOP is imperfect. In certain cases such a critique is to some 
degree justified. But from my point of view CSICOP serves an 
important social function as a well-known organization to which 
media can apply when they wish to hear the other side of the 



story, especially when some amazing claim to pseudoscience is 
adjudged newsworthy. It used to be (and for much of the global 
news media it still is) that every levitating guru, visiting alien, 
channeller and faith-healer, when covered by the media, would be 
treated nonsubstantively and uncritically. There would be no 
institutional memory at the television studio or newspaper or 
magazine about other, similar claims previously shown to be 
scams and bamboozles. CSICOP represents a counterbalance, 
although not yet nearly a loud enough voice, to the pseudoscience 
gullibility that seems second nature to so much of the media. 

One of my favourite cartoons shows a fortune-teller scrutinizing 
the mark's palm and gravely concluding, 'You are very gullible.' 
CSICOP publishes a bi-monthly periodical called The Skeptical 
Inquirer. On the day it arrives, I take it home from the office and 
pore through its pages, wondering what new misunderstandings 
will be revealed. There's always another bamboozle that I never 
thought of. Crop circles! Aliens have come and made perfect 
circles and mathematical messages ... in wheat! Who would have 
thought it? So unlikely an artistic medium. Or they've come and 
eviscerated cows - on a large scale, systematically. Farmers are 
furious. At first, I'm impressed by the inventiveness of the stories. 
But then, on more sober reflection, it always strikes me how dull 
and routine these accounts are; what a compilation of unimagina- 
tive stale ideas, chauvinisms, hopes and fears dressed up as facts. 
The contentions, from this point of view, are suspect on their face. 
That's all they can conceive the extraterrestrials doing . . . mak- 
ing circles in wheat? What a failure of the imagination! With every 
issue, another facet of pseudoscience is revealed and criticized. 

And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the sceptical movement is in 
its polarization: Us v. Them - the sense that we have a monopoly on 
the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid 
doctrines are morons; that ifyou're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if 
not, you're beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not 
get the message across. It condemns the sceptics to permanent 
minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the 
beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and 
superstition might be much more widely accepted. 

If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without 
consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on 
crystals from Atlantis. And such compassion for kindred spirits in 
a common quest also works to make science and the scientific 
method less off-putting, especially to the young. 

Many pseudoscientific and New Age belief systems emerge out 
of dissatisfaction with conventional values and perspectives and 
are therefore themselves a kind of scepticism. (The same is true of 
the origins of most religions.) David Hess (in Science and the New 
Age) argues that 

the world of paranormal beliefs and practices cannot be 
reduced to cranks, crackpots, and charlatans. A large number 
of sincere people are exploring alternative approaches to 
questions of personal meaning, spirituality, healing, and 
paranormal experience in general. To the sceptic, their quest 
may ultimately rest on a delusion, but debunking is hardly 
likely to be an effective rhetorical device for their rationalist 
project of getting [people] to recognize what appears to the 
sceptic as mistaken or magical thinking. 

. . . [T]he sceptic might take a clue from cultural anthro- 
pology and develop a more sophisticated scepticism by under- 
standing alternative belief systems from the perspective of the 
people who hold them and by situating these beliefs in their 
historical, social, and cultural contexts. As a result, the world 
of the paranormal may appear less as a silly turn toward 
irrationalism and more as an idiom through which segments 
of society express their conflicts, dilemmas, and identi- 
ties . . . 

To the extent that sceptics have a psychological or socio- 
logical theory of New Age beliefs, it tends to be very 
simplistic: paranormal beliefs are 'comforting' to people who 
cannot handle the reality of an atheistic universe, or their 
beliefs are the product of an irresponsible media that is not 
encouraging the public to think critically . . . 

But Hess's just criticism promptly deteriorates into complaints 
that parapsychologists 'have had their careers ruined by sceptical 



colleagues', and that sceptics exhibit 'a kind of religious zeal to 
defend the materialistic and atheistic world view that smacks of 
what has been called "scientific fundamentalism" or "irrational 
rationalism" '. 

This is a common but to me deeply mysterious - indeed, occult 

- complaint. Again, we know a great deal about the existence and 
properties of matter. If a given phenomenon can already be 
plausibly understood in terms of matter and energy, why should 
we hypothesize that something else, something for which there is 
as yet no other good evidence, is responsible? Yet the complaint 
persists: sceptics won't accept that there's an invisible fire- 
breathing dragon in my garage because they're all atheistic 

In Science in the New Age, scepticism is discussed, but it is not 
understood, and it is certainly not practised. All sorts of paranor- 
mal claims are quoted, sceptics are 'deconstructed', but you can 
never learn from reading it that there are ways to decide whether 
New Age and parapsychological claims to knowledge are promis- 
ing or false. It's all, as in many postmodernist texts, a matter of 
how strongly people feel and what their biases may be. 

Robert Anton Wilson (in The New Inquisition: Irrational 
Rationalism and the Citadel of Science, 1986) describes sceptics as 
the 'New Inquisition'. But to my knowledge no sceptic compels 
belief. Indeed, on most TV documentaries and talk shows, 
sceptics get short shrift and almost no air time. All that's 
happening is that some doctrines and methods are being criticized 

- at the worst, ridiculed - in magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer 
with circulations of a few tens of thousands. New Agers are not 
much, as in earlier times, being called up before criminal tribu- 
nals, nor whipped for having visions, and they are certainly not 
being burned at the stake. Why fear a little criticism? Aren't they 
interested to see how well their beliefs hold up against the best 
counterarguments the sceptics can muster? 

Perhaps one per cent of the time, someone who has an idea that 
smells, feels and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of 
pseudoscience will turn out to be right. Maybe some undiscovered 
reptile left over from the Cretaceous period will indeed be found 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

in Loch Ness or the Congo Republic; or we will find artefacts of an 
advanced, non-human species elsewhere in the solar system. At 
the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in 
my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone 
humans can (barely) affect random number generators in comput- 
ers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive 
thoughts or images 'projected' at them; and (3) that young 
children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which 
upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not 
have known about in any other way than reincarnation. I pick 
these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), 
but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three 
have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. 
Of course, I could be wrong. 

In the middle 1970s an astronomer I admire put together a 
modest manifesto called 'Objections to Astrology' and asked me 
to endorse it. I struggled with his wording, and in the end found 
myself unable to sign, not because I thought astrology has any 
validity whatever, but because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of 
the statement was authoritarian. It criticized astrology for having 
origins shrouded in superstition. But this is true as well for 
religion, chemistry, medicine and astronomy, to mention only 
four. The issue is not what faltering and rudimentary knowledge 
astrology came from, but what is its present validity. Then there 
was speculation on the psychological motivations of those who 
believe in astrology. These motivations - for example, the feeling 
of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable 
world - might explain why astrology is not generally given the 
sceptical scrutiny it deserves, but is quite peripheral to whether it 

The statement stressed that we can think of no mechanism by 
which astrology could work. This is certainly a relevant point but 
by itself it's unconvincing. No mechanism was known for conti- 
nental drift (now subsumed in plate tectonics) when it was 
proposed by Alfred Wegener in the first quarter of the twentieth 
century to explain a range of puzzling data in geology and 
palaeontology. (Ore-bearing veins of rocks and fossils seemed to 
run continuously from eastern South America to West Africa; 



were the two continents once touching and the Atlantic Ocean 
new to our planet?) The notion was roundly dismissed by all the 
great geophysicists, who were certain that continents were fixed, 
not floating on anything, and therefore unable to 'drift'. Instead, 
the key twentieth-century idea in geophysics turns out to be plate 
tectonics; we now understand that continental plates do indeed 
float and 'drift' (or better, are carried by a kind of conveyor belt 
driven by the great heat engine of the Earth's interior), and all 
those great geophysicists were simply wrong. Objections to pseu- 
doscience on the grounds of unavailable mechanism can be 
mistaken - although if the contentions violate well-established 
laws of physics, such objections of course carry great weight. 

Many valid criticisms of astrology can be formulated in a few 
sentences: for example, its acceptance of precession of the equi- 
noxes in announcing an Age of Aquarius' and its rejection of 
precession of the equinoxes in casting horoscopes; its neglect of 
atmospheric refraction; its list of supposedly significant celestial 
objects that is mainly limited to naked eye objects known to 
Ptolemy in the second century, and that ignores an enormous 
variety of new astronomical objects discovered since (where is the 
astrology of near-Earth asteroids?); inconsistent requirements for 
detailed information on the time as compared to the latitude and 
longitude of birth; the failure of astrology to pass the identical- 
twin test; the major differences in horoscopes cast from the same 
birth information by different astrologers; and the absence of 
demonstrated correlation between horoscopes and such psycho- 
logical tests as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. 

What I would have signed is a statement describing and refuting 
the principal tenets of astrological belief. Such a statement would 
have been far more persuasive than what was actually circulated 
and published. But astrology, which has been with us for four 
thousand years or more, today seems more popular than ever. At 
least a quarter of all Americans, according to opinion polls, 
'believe' in astrology. A third think Sun-sign astrology is 'scien- 
tific'. The fraction of schoolchildren believing in astrology rose 
from 40 per cent to 59 per cent between 1978 and 1984. There are 
perhaps ten times more astrologers than astronomers in the 
United States. In France there are more astrologers than Roman 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

Catholic clergy. No stuffy dismissal by a gaggle of scientists makes 
contact with the social needs that astrology - no matter how 
invalid it is - addresses, and science does not. 

As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential 
balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an 
openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, 
and the most ruthlessly sceptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. 
This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The 
collective enterprise of creative thinking and sceptical thinking, 
working together, keeps the field on track. Those two seemingly 
contradictory attitudes are, though, in some tension. 

Consider this claim: as I walk along, time - as measured by my 
wristwatch or my ageing process - slows down. Also, I shrink in 
the direction of motion. Also, I get more massive. Who has ever 
witnessed such a thing? It's easy to dismiss it out of hand. Here's 
another: matter and antimatter are all the time, throughout the 
universe, being created from nothing. Here's a third: once in a 
very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the 
brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the 
street. They're all absurd! But the first is a statement of special 
relativity, and the other two are consequences of quantum 
mechanics (vacuum fluctuations and barrier tunnelling,* they're 
called). Like it or not, that's the way the world is. If you insist it's 
ridiculous, you'll be forever closed to some of the major findings 
on the rules that govern the Universe. 

If you're only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to 
you. You never learn anything. You become a crochety misan- 
thrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of 
course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries in the 
borderlines of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm 
your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to 
be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you're too resolutely and 
uncompromisingly sceptical, you're going to miss (or resent) the 

* The average waiting time per stochastic ooze is much longer than the age of the 
Universe since the Big Bang. But, however improbable, in principle it might 
happen tomorrow. 



transforming discoveries in science, and either way you will be 
obstructing understanding and progress. Mere scepticism is not 

At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and 
uncompromising scepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are 
simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the 
chaff is by critical experiment and analysis. If you're open to the 
point of gullibility and have not a microgram of sceptical sense in 
you, then you cannot distinguish the promising ideas from the 
worthless ones. Uncritically accepting every proffered notion, 
idea and hypothesis is tantamount to knowing nothing. Ideas 
contradict one another; only through sceptical scrutiny can we 
decide among them. Some ideas really are better than others. 

The judicious mix of these two modes of thought is central to 
the success of science. Good scientists do both. On their own, 
talking to themselves, they churn up many new ideas, and criticize 
them systematically. Most of the ideas never make it to the 
outside world. Only those that pass a rigorous self- filtration make 
it out to be criticized by the rest of the scientific community. 

Because of this dogged mutual and self-criticism, and the 
proper reliance on experiment as the arbiter between contending 
hypotheses, many scientists tend to be diffident about describing 
their own sense of wonder at the dawning of a wild surmise. This is 
a pity, because these rare exultant moments demystify and 
humanize the scientific endeavour. 

No one can be entirely open or completely sceptical. We all 
must draw the line somewhere.* An ancient Chinese proverb 
advises, 'Better to be too credulous than too sceptical', but this is 
from an extremely conservative society in which stability was 
much more prized than freedom and where the rulers had a 
powerful vested interest in not being challenged. Most scientists, I 
believe, would say, 'Better to be too sceptical than too credulous'. 
But neither is easy. Responsible, thoroughgoing, rigorous scepti- 
cism requires a hardnosed habit of thought that takes practice and 
training to master. Credulity - I think a better word here is 

* And in some cases scepticism would be simply silly, as for example in learning 
to spell. 


The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

'openness' or 'wonder' - does not come easily either. If we really 
are to be open to counterintuitive ideas in physics or social 
organization or anything else, we must grasp those ideas. It means 
nothing to be open to a proposition we don't understand. 

Both scepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and 
practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every 
schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I'd 
love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, 
television especially: a community of people really working the 
mix - full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing 
nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as 
second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence; and 
these standards applied with at least as much rigour to what they 
hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity. 



The Wind Makes Dust 

[T]he wind makes dust because it intends to blow, taking 
away our footprints. 

Specimens of Bushmen Folklore, 
W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, 
collectors, L.C. Lloyd, editor (1911) 

[EJvery time a savage tracks his game he employs a 
minuteness of observation, and an accuracy of inductive and 
deductive reasoning which, applied to other matters, would 
assure some reputation as a man of science . . . [T]he 
intellectual labour of a 'good hunter or warrior' considerably 
exceeds that of an ordinary Englishman. 

Thomas H. Huxley, Collected Essays, 
Volume II, Darwiniana: Essays 
(London: Macmillan, 1907), pp. 175-6 
[from 'Mr Darwin's Critics' (1871)] 

Why should so many people find science hard to learn and 
hard to teach? I've tried to suggest some of the reasons - its 
precision, its counterintuitive and disquieting aspects, its pros- 
pects of misuse, its independence of authority, and so on. But is 
there something deeper? Alan Cromer is a physics professor at 
Northeastern University in Boston who was surprised to find so 
many students unable to grasp the most elementary concepts in his 


The Wind Makes Dust 

physics class. In Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of 
Science (1993), Cromer proposes that science is difficult because 
it's new. We, a species that's a few hundred thousand years old, 
discovered the method of science only a few centuries ago, he 
says. Like writing, which is only a few millennia old, we haven't 
gotten the hang of it yet - or at least not without very serious and 
attentive study. 

Except for an unlikely concatenation of historical events, he 
suggests, we would never have invented science: 

This hostility to science, in the face of its obvious triumphs 
and benefits, is . . . evidence that it is something outside the 
mainstream of human development, perhaps a fluke. 

Chinese civilization invented movable type, gunpowder, the 
rocket, the magnetic compass, the seismograph, and systematic 
observations and chronicles of the heavens. Indian mathemati- 
cians invented the zero, the key to comfortable arithmetic and 
therefore to quantitative science. Aztec civilization developed a 
far better calendar than that of the European civilization that 
inundated and destroyed it; they were better able, and for longer 
periods into the future, to predict where the planets would be. But 
none of these civilizations, Cromer argues, had developed the 
sceptical, inquiring, experimental method of science. All of that 
came out of ancient Greece: 

The development of objective thinking by the Greeks 
appears to have required a number of specific cultural 
factors. First was the assembly, where men first learned to 
persuade one another by means of rational debate. Second 
was a maritime economy that prevented isolation and paro- 
chialism. Third was the existence of a widespread Greek- 
speaking world around which travelers and scholars could 
wander. Fourth was the existence of an independent mer- 
chant class that could hire its own teachers. Fifth was the Iliad 
and the Odyssey, literary masterpieces that are themselves 
the epitome of liberal rational thinking. Sixth was a literary 
religion not dominated by priests. And seventh was the 



persistence of these factors for 1,000 years. 

That all these factors came together in one great civiliza- 
tion is quite fortuitous; it didn't happen twice. 

I'm sympathetic to part of this thesis. The ancient Ionians were 
the first we know of to argue systematically that laws and forces of 
Nature, rather than gods, are responsible for the order and even 
the existence of the world. As Lucretius summarized their views, 
'Nature free at once and rid of her haughty lords is seen to do all 
things spontaneously of herself without the meddling of the gods.' 
Except for the first week of introductory philosophy courses, 
though, the names and notions of the early Ionians are almost 
never mentioned in our society. Those who dismiss the gods tend 
to be forgotten. We are not anxious to preserve the memory of 
such sceptics, much less their ideas. Heroes who try to explain the 
world in terms of matter and energy may have arisen many times 
in many cultures, only to be obliterated by the priests and 
philosophers in charge of the conventional wisdom, as the Ionian 
approach was almost wholly lost after the time of Plato and 
Aristotle. With many cultures and many experiments of this sort, 
it may be that only on rare occasions does the idea take root. 

Plants and animals were domesticated and civilization began 
only ten or twelve thousand years ago. The Ionian experiment is 
2,500 years old. It was almost entirely expunged. We can see steps 
towards science in ancient China, India and elsewhere, even 
though faltering, incomplete, and bearing less fruit. But suppose 
the Ionians had never existed, and Greek science and mathemat- 
ics never flourished. Is it possible that never again in the history of 
the human species would science have emerged? Or, given many 
cultures and many alternative historical skeins, isn't it likely that 
the right combination of factors would come into play somewhere 
else, sooner or later - in the islands of Indonesia, say, or in the 
Caribbean on the outskirts of a Mesoamerican civilization 
untouched by Conquistadores, or in Norse colonies on the shores 
of the Black Sea? 

The impediment to scientific thinking is not, I think, the 
difficulty of the subject. Complex intellectual feats have been 
mainstays even of oppressed cultures. Shamans, magicians and 


The Wind Makes Dust 

theologians are highly skilled in their intricate and arcane arts. 
No, the impediment is political and hierarchical. In those cultures 
lacking unfamiliar challenges, external or internal, where funda- 
mental change is unneeded, novel ideas need not be encouraged. 
Indeed, heresies can be declared dangerous; thinking can be 
rigidified; and sanctions against impermissible ideas can be 
enforced - all without much harm. But under varied and changing 
environmental or biological or political circumstances, simply 
copying the old ways no longer works. Then, a premium awaits 
those who, instead of blandly following tradition, or trying to foist 
their preferences on to the physical or social Universe, are open to 
what the Universe teaches. Each society must decide where in the 
continuum between openness and rigidity safety lies. 

Greek mathematics was a brilliant step forward. Greek science, 
on the other hand - its first steps rudimentary and often unin- 
formed by experiment - was riddled with error. Despite the fact 
that we cannot see in pitch darkness, they believed that vision 
depends on a kind of radar that emanates from the eye, bounces 
off what we're seeing, and returns to the eye. (Nevertheless, they 
made substantial progress in optics.) Despite the obvious resem- 
blance of children to their mothers, they believed that heredity 
was carried by semen alone, the woman a mere passive receptacle. 
They believed that the horizontal motion of a thrown rock 
somehow lifts it up, so that it takes longer to reach the ground 
than a rock dropped from the same height at the same moment. 
Enamoured of simple geometry, they believed the circle to be 
'perfect'; despite the 'Man in the Moon' and sunspots (occasion- 
ally visible to the naked eye at sunset), they held the heavens also 
to be 'perfect'; therefore, planetary orbits had to be circular. 

Being freed from superstition isn't enough for science to 
grow. One must also have the idea of interrogating Nature, of 
doing experiments. There were some brilliant examples - 
Eratosthenes's measurement of the Earth's diameter, say, or 
Empedocles's clepsydra experiment demonstrating the material 
nature of air. But in a society in which manual labour is 
demeaned and thought fit only for slaves, as in the classical 
Graeco-Roman world, the experimental method does not 
thrive. Science requires us to be freed of gross superstition and 



gross injustice both. Often, superstition and injustice are imposed by 
the same ecclesiastical and secular authorities, working hand in 
glove. It is no surprise that political revolutions, scepticism about 
religion, and the rise of science might go together. Liberation from 
superstition is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for science. 

At the same time, it is undeniable that central figures in the 
transition from medieval superstition to modern science were 
profoundly influenced by the idea of one Supreme God who 
created the Universe and established not only commandments 
that humans must live by, but laws that Nature itself must abide 
by. The seventeenth-century German astronomer Johannes 
Kepler, without whom Newtonian physics might not have come to 
be, described his pursuit of science as a wish to know the mind of 
God. In our own time, leading scientists, including Albert Ein- 
stein and Stephen Hawking, have described their quest in nearly 
identical terms. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and the 
historian of Chinese technology Joseph Needham have also 
suggested that what was lacking in the development of science in 
non-western cultures was monotheism. 

And yet, I think there is strong contrary evidence to this whole 
thesis, calling out to us from across the millennia . . . 

The small hunting party follows the trail of hoofprints and other 
spoor. They pause for a moment by a stand of trees. Squatting on 
their heels, they examine the evidence more carefully. The trail 
they've been following has been crossed by another. Quickly they 
agree on which animals are responsible, how many of them, what 
ages and sexes, whether any are injured, how fast they're travelling, 
how long ago they passed, whether any other hunters are in pursuit, 
whether the party can overtake the game, and if so, how long it will 
take. The decision made, they flick their hands over the trail they 
will follow, make a quiet sound between their teeth like the wind, 
and off they lope. Despite their bows and poison arrows, they 
continue at championship marathon racing form for hours. Almost 
always they've read the message in the ground correctly. The 
wildebeests or elands or okapis are where they thought, in the 
numbers and condition they estimated. The hunt is successful. Meat 
is carried back to the temporary camp. Everyone feasts. 


The Wind Makes Dust 

This more or less typical hunting vignette comes from the !Kung 
San people of the Kalahari Desert, in the Republics of Botswana 
and Namibia, who are now, tragically, on the verge of extinction. 
But for decades they and their way of life were studied by 
anthropologists. The !Kung San may be typical of the hunter- 
gatherer mode of existence in which we humans spent most of our 
time, until ten thousand years ago, when plants and animals were 
domesticated and the human condition began to change, perhaps 
forever. They were trackers of such legendary prowess that they 
were enlisted by the apartheid South African army to hunt down 
human prey in the wars against the 'front-line states'. This 
encounter with the white South African military in several differ- 
ent ways accelerated the destruction of the !Kung San way of life. 
It had, in any case, been deteriorating bit by bit over the centuries 
from every contact with European civilization. 

How did they do it? How could they tell so much from barely 
more than a glance? Saying they're keen observers explains 
nothing. What actually did they do? According to anthropologist 
Richard Lee: 

They scrutinized the shape of the depressions. The footprints of 
a fast-moving animal display a more elongated symmetry. A 
slightly lame animal favours the afflicted foot, puts less weight on 
it, and leaves a fainter imprint. A heavier animal leaves a deeper 
and broader hollow. The correlation functions are in the heads of 
the hunters. 

In the course of the day, the footprints erode a little. The walls 
of the depression tend to crumble. Windblown sand accumulates 
on the floor of the hollow. Perhaps bits of leaf, twigs or grass are 
blown into it. The longer you wait, the more erosion there is. 

This method is essentially identical to what planetary astrono- 
mers use in analysing craters left by impacting worldlets: other 
things being equal, the shallower the crater, the older it is. Craters 
with slumped walls, with modest depth-to-diameter ratios, with 
fine particles accumulated in their interiors tend to be more 
ancient, because they had to be around long enough for these 
erosive processes to come into play. 

The sources of degradation may differ from world to world, or 
desert to desert, or epoch to epoch. But if you know what they are 



you can determine a great deal from how crisp or blurred the 
crater is. If insect or other animal tracks are superposed on the 
hoofprints, this also argues against their freshness. The subsurface 
moisture content of the soil and the rate at which it dries out after 
being exposed by a hoof determine how crumbly the crater walls 
are. All these matters are closely studied by the !Kung. 

The galloping herd hates the hot Sun. The animals will use 
whatever shade they can find. They will alter course to take brief 
advantage of the shade from a stand of trees. But where the 
shadow is depends on the time of day, because the Sun is moving 
across the sky. In the morning, as the Sun is rising in the east, 
shadows are cast west of the trees. Later in the afternoon, as the 
Sun is setting toward the west, shadows are cast to the east. From 
the swerve of the tracks, it's possible to tell how long ago the 
animals passed. This calculation will be different in different 
seasons of the year. So the hunters must carry in their heads a kind 
of astronomical calendar predicting the apparent solar motion. 

To me, all of these formidable forensic tracking skills are 
science in action. 

Not only are hunter-gatherers expert in the tracks of other 
animals; they also know human tracks very well. Every member of 
the band is recognizable by his or her footprints; they are as 
familiar as their faces. Laurens van der Post recounts, 

[M]any miles from home and separated from the rest, Nxou 
and I, on the track of a wounded buck, suddenly found 
another set of prints and spoor joining our own. He gave a 
deep grunt of satisfaction and said it was Bauxhau's foot- 
marks made not many minutes before. He declared Bauxhau 
was running fast and that we would soon see him and the 
animal. We topped the dune in front of us and there was 
Bauxhau, already skinning the animal. 

Or Richard Lee, also among the !Kung San, relates how when 
briefly examining some tracks a hunter commented, 'Oh, look, 
Tunu is here with his brother-in-law. But where is his son?' 

Is this really science? Does every tracker in the course of his 
training sit on his haunches for hours, following the slow degradation 


The Wind Makes Dust 

of an eland hoofprint? When the anthropologist asks this question, 
the answer given is that hunters have always used such methods. 
They observed their fathers and other accomplished hunters during 
their apprenticeships. They learned by imitation. The general princi- 
ples were passed down from generation to generation. The local 
variations - wind speed, soil moisture - are updated as needed in 
each generation, or seasonally, or day-by-day. 

But modern scientists do just the same. Every time we try to 
judge the age of a crater on the Moon or Mercury or Triton by its 
degree of erosion, we do not perform the calculation from scratch. 
We dust off a certain scientific paper and read the tried-and-true 
numbers that have been set down perhaps as much as a generation 
earlier. Physicists do not derive Maxwell's equations or quantum 
mechanics from scratch. They try to understand the principles and 
the mathematics, they observe its utility, they note how Nature 
follows these rules, and they take these sciences to heart, making 
them their own. 

Yet someone had to figure out all these tracking protocols for 
the first time, perhaps some palaeolithic genius, or more likely a 
succession of geniuses in widely separated times and places. There 
is no hint in the !Kung tracking protocols of magical methods - 
examining the stars the night before or the entrails of an animal, 
or casting dice, or interpreting dreams, or conjuring demons, or 
any of the myriad other spurious claims to knowledge that humans 
have intermittently entertained. Here there's a specific, well- 
defined question: which way did the prey go and what are its 
characteristics? You need a precise answer that magic and divina- 
tion simply do not provide, or at least not often enough to stave 
off starvation. Instead hunter-gatherers - who are not very 
superstitious in their everyday life, except during trance dances 
around the fire and under the influence of mild euphoriants - are 
practical, workaday, motivated, social, and often very cheerful. 
They employ skills winnowed from past successes and failures. 

Scientific thinking has almost certainly been with us from the 
beginning. You can even see it in chimpanzees when tracking on 
patrol of the frontiers of their territory, or when preparing a reed 
to insert into the termite mound to extract a modest but much- 
needed source of protein. The development of tracking skills 



delivers a powerful evolutionary selective advantage. Those 
groups unable to figure it out get less protein and leave fewer 
offspring. Those with a scientific bent, those able patiently to 
observe, those with a penchant for figuring out acquire more food, 
especially more protein, and live in more varied habitats; they and 
their hereditary lines prosper. The same is true, for instance, of 
Polynesian seafaring skills. A scientific bent brings tangible 

The other principal food-garnering activity of pre-agrarian 
societies is foraging. To forage, you must know the properties of 
many plants, and you must certainly be able to distinguish one 
from another. Botanists and anthropologists have repeatedly 
found that all over the world hunter-gatherer peoples have 
distinguished the various plant species with the precision of 
western taxonomists. They have mentally mapped their territory 
with the finesse of cartographers. Again, all this is a precondition 
for survival. 

So the claim that, just as children are not developmentally 
ready for certain concepts in mathematics or logic, so 'primitive' 
peoples are not intellectually able to grasp science and technol- 
ogy, is nonsense. This vestige of colonialism and racism is belied 
by the everyday activities of people living with no fixed abode and 
almost no possessions, the few remaining hunter-gatherers - the 
custodians of our deep past. 

Of Cromer's criteria for 'objective thinking', we can certainly 
find in hunter-gatherer peoples vigorous and substantive debate, 
direct participatory democracy, wide-ranging travel, no priests, 
and the persistence of these factors not for 1,000 but for 300,000 
years or more. By his criteria hunter-gatherers ought to have 
science. I think they do. Or did. 

What Ionia and ancient Greece provided is not so much inven- 
tions or technology or engineering, but the idea of systematic 
inquiry, the notion that laws of Nature, rather than capricious 
gods, govern the world. Water, air, earth and fire all had their 
turn as candidate 'explanations' of the nature and origin of the 
world. Each such explanation - identified with a different pre- 
Socratic philosopher - was deeply flawed in its details. But the 


The Wind Makes Dust 

mode of explanation, an alternative to divine intervention, was 
productive and new. Likewise, in the history of ancient Greece, 
we can see nearly all significant events driven by the caprice of the 
gods in Homer, only a few events in Herodotus, and essentially 
none at all in Thucydides. In a few hundred years, history passed 
from god-driven to human-driven. 

Something akin to laws of Nature were once glimpsed in a 
determinedly polytheistic society, in which some scholars toyed 
with a form of atheism. This approach of the pre-Socratics was, 
beginning in about the fourth century BC, quenched by Plato, 
Aristotle and then Christian theologians. If the skein of historical 
causality had been different - if the brilliant guesses of the 
atomists on the nature of matter, the plurality of worlds, the 
vastness of space and time had been treasured and built upon, if 
the innovative technology of Archimedes had been taught and 
emulated, if the notion of invariable laws of Nature that humans 
must seek out and understand had been widely propagated - I 
wonder what kind of world we would live in now. 

I don't think science is hard to teach because humans aren't 
ready for it, or because it arose only through a fluke, or because, 
by and large, we don't have the brainpower to grapple with it. 
Instead, the enormous zest for science that I see in first-graders 
and the lesson from the remnant hunter-gatherers both speak 
eloquently: a proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, 
in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means for our 
survival. It is our birthright. When, through indifference, inatten- 
tion, incompetence, or fear of scepticism, we discourage children 
from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the 
tools needed to manage their future. 



No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

So we keep asking, over and over, 

Until a handful of earth 

Stops our mouths — 

But is that an answer? 

Heinrich Heine, 
'Lazarus' (1854) 

In East Africa, in the records of the rocks dating back to about 
two million years ago, you can find a sequence of worked tools 
that our ancestors designed and executed. Their lives depended 
on making and using these tools. This was, of course, Early Stone 
Age technology. Over time, specially fashioned stones were used 
for stabbing, chipping, flaking, cutting, carving. Although there 
are many ways of making stone tools, what is remarkable is that in 
a given site for enormous periods of time the tools were made in 
the same way - which means that there must have been educa- 
tional institutions hundreds of thousands of years ago, even if it 
was mainly an apprenticeship system. While it's easy to exagger- 
ate the similarities, it's also easy to imagine the equivalent of 
professors and students in loincloths, laboratory courses, exami- 
nations, failing grades, graduation ceremonies and postgraduate 

When the training is unchanged for immense periods of time, 
traditions are passed on intact to the next generation. But when 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

what needs to be learned changes quickly, especially in the course 
of a single generation, it becomes much harder to know what to 
teach and how to teach it. Then, students complain about 
relevance; respect for their elders diminishes. Teachers despair at 
how educational standards have deteriorated, and how lackadaisi- 
cal students have become. In a world in transition, students and 
teachers both need to teach themselves one essential skill - 
learning how to learn. 

Except for children (who don't know enough not to ask the 
important questions), few of us spend much time wondering why 
Nature is the way it is; where the Cosmos came from, or whether 
it was always here; if time will one day flow backward, and effects 
precede causes; or whether there are ultimate limits to what 
humans can know. There are even children, and I have met some 
of them, who want to know what a black hole looks like; what is 
the smallest piece of matter; why we remember the past and not 
the future; and why there is a Universe. 

Every now and then, I'm lucky enough to teach a kindergarten 
or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born 
scientists - although heavy on the wonder side and light on 
scepticism. They're curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative 
and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enor- 
mous enthusiasm. I'm asked follow-up questions. They've never 
heard of the notion of a 'dumb question'. 

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something 
different. They memorize 'facts'. By and large, though, the joy of 
discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. 
They've lost much of the wonder, and gained very little scepti- 
cism. They're worried about asking 'dumb' questions; they're 
willing to accept inadequate answers; they don't pose follow-up 
questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, 
second-by-second, the approval of their peers. They come to class 
with their questions written out on pieces of paper, which they 
surreptitiously examine, waiting their turn and oblivious of what- 
ever discussion their peers are at this moment engaged in. 

Something has happened between first and twelfth grade, and 
it's not just puberty. I'd guess that it's partly peer pressure not to 



excel (except in sports); partly that the society teaches short-term 
gratification; partly the impression that science or mathematics 
won't buy you a sports car; partly that so little is expected of 
students; and partly that there are few rewards or role models for 
intelligent discussion of science and technology - or even for 
learning for its own sake. Those few who remain interested are 
vilified as 'nerds' or 'geeks' or 'grinds'. 

But there's something else: I find many adults are put off when 
young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? 
the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep 
can you dig a hole? When is the world's birthday? Why do we 
have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation 
or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: 'What did you 
expect the Moon to be, square?' Children soon recognize that 
somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more 
experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. 
Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I 
can't for the life of me understand. What's wrong with admitting 
that we don't know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile? 

What's more, many of these questions go to deep issues in 
science, a few of which are not yet fully resolved. Why the Moon 
is round has to do with the fact that gravity is a central force 
pulling towards the middle of any world, and with how strong 
rocks are. Grass is green because of the pigment chlorophyll, of 
course - we've all had that drummed into us by high schools - but 
why do plants have chlorophyll? It seems foolish, since the Sun 
puts out its peak energy in the yellow and green part of the 
spectrum. Why should plants all over the world reject sunlight in 
its most abundant wavelengths? Maybe it's a frozen accident from 
the ancient history of life on Earth. But there's something we still 
don't understand about why grass is green. 

There are many better responses than making the child feel that 
asking deep questions constitutes a social blunder. If we have an 
idea of the answer, we can try to explain. Even an incomplete 
attempt constitutes a reassurance and encouragement. If we have 
no idea of the answer, we can go to the encyclopedia. If we don't 
have an encyclopedia, we can take the child to the library. Or we 
might say: 'I don't know the answer. Maybe no one knows. Maybe 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

when you grow up, you'll be the first person to find out.' 

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased ques- 
tions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every 
question is a cry to understand the world.* There is no such thing 
as a dumb question. 

Bright, curious children are a national and world resource. 
They need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. But mere 
encouragement isn't enough. We must also give them the essential 
tools to think with. 

'It's Official', reads one newspaper headline: 'We Stink in Sci- 
ence'. In tests of average 17-year-olds in many world regions, the 
US ranked dead last in algebra. On identical tests, the US kids 
averaged 43% and their Japanese counterparts 78%. In my book, 
78% is pretty good - it corresponds to a C + , or maybe even a B-; 
43% is an F. In a chemistry test, students in only two of 13 nations 
did worse than the US. Britain, Singapore and Hong Kong were 
so high they were almost off-scale, and 25% of Canadian 18-year- 
olds knew just as much chemistry as a select 1% of American high 
school seniors (in their second chemistry course, and most of them 
in 'advanced' placement programmes). The best of 20 fifth-grade 
classrooms in Minneapolis was outpaced by every one of 20 
classrooms in Sendai, Japan, and 19 out of 20 in Taipei, Taiwan. 
South Korean students were far ahead of American students in all 
aspects of mathematics and science, and 13-year-olds in British 
Columbia (in western Canada) outpaced their US counterparts 
across the board (in some areas they did better than the Koreans). 
Of the US kids, 22% say they dislike school; only 8% of the 
Koreans do. Yet two-thirds of the Americans, but only a quarter 
of the Koreans, say they are 'good at mathematics'. 

Such dismal trends for average students in the United States are 
occasionally offset by the performance of outstanding students. In 
1994, American students at the International Mathematical Olym- 
piad in Hong Kong achieved an unprecedented perfect score, 
defeating 360 other students from 68 nations in algebra, geometry 

* I'm excluding the fusillade of 'whys' that two-year-olds sometimes pelt their 
parents with - perhaps in an effort to control adult behaviour. 



and number theory. One of them, 17-year-old Jeremy Bern, 
commented 'Maths problems are logic puzzles. There's no routine 
- it's all very creative and artistic' But here I'm concerned not 
with producing a new generation of first-rate scientists and 
mathematicians, but a scientifically literate public. 

Sixty-three per cent of American adults are unaware that the 
last dinosaur died before the first human arose; 75 per cent do not 
know that antibiotics kill bacteria but not viruses; 57 per cent do 
not know that 'electrons are smaller than atoms'. Polls show that 
something like half of American adults do not know that the Earth 
goes around the Sun and takes a year to do it. I can find in my 
undergraduate classes at Cornell University bright students who 
do not know that the stars rise and set at night, or even that the 
Sun is a star. 

Because of science fiction, the educational system, NASA, and 
the role that science plays in society, Americans have much more 
exposure to the Copernican insight than does the average human. 
A 1993 poll by the China Association of Science and Technology 
shows that, as in America, no more than half the people in China 
know that the Earth revolves around the Sun once a year. It may 
very well be, then, that more than four and a half centuries after 
Copernicus, most people on Earth still think, in their heart of 
hearts, that our planet sits immobile at the centre of the Universe, 
and that we are profoundly 'special'. 

These are typical questions in 'scientific literacy'. The results 
are appalling. But what do they measure? The memorization of 
authoritative pronouncements. What they shouldbe asking is how 
we know - that antibiotics discriminate between microbes, that 
electrons are 'smaller' than atoms, that the Sun is a star which the 
Earth orbits once a year. Such questions are a much truer measure 
of public understanding of science, and the results of such tests 
would doubtless be more disheartening still. 

If you accept the literal truth of every word of the Bible, then 
the Earth must be flat. The same is true for the Qu'ran. 
Pronouncing the Earth round then means you're an atheist. In 
1993, the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, Sheik 
Abdel-Aziz Ibn Baaz, issued an edict, or fatwa, declaring that the 
world is flat. Anyone of the round persuasion does not believe in 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

God and should be punished. Among many ironies, the lucid 
evidence that the Earth is a sphere, accumulated by the second- 
century Graeco-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, was 
transmitted to the west by astronomers who were Muslim and 
Arab. In the ninth century, they named Ptolemy's book in which 
the sphericity of the Earth is demonstrated, the Almagest, 'The 

I meet many people offended by evolution, who passionately 
prefer to be the personal handicraft of God than to arise by blind 
physical and chemical forces over aeons from slime. They also tend 
to be less than assiduous in exposing themselves to the evidence. 
Evidence has little to do with it: what they wish to be true, they 
believe is true. Only nine per cent of Americans accept the central 
finding of modern biology that human beings (and all the other 
species) have slowly evolved by natural processes from a succes- 
sion of more ancient beings with no divine intervention needed 
along the way. (When asked merely if they accept evolution, 45 
per cent of Americans say yes. The figure is 70 per cent in China.) 
When the movie Jurassic Park was shown in Israel, it was 
condemned by some Orthodox rabbis because it accepted evolu- 
tion and because it taught that dinosaurs lived a hundred million 
years ago, when, as is plainly stated at every Rosh Hashanah and 
every Jewish wedding ceremony, the Universe is less than 6,000 
years old. The clearest evidence of our evolution can be found in 
our genes. But evolution is still being fought, ironically by those 
whose own DNA proclaims it - in the schools, in the courts, in 
textbook publishing houses, and on the question of just how much 
pain we can inflict on other animals without crossing some ethical 

During the Great Depression in America, teachers enjoyed job 
security, good salaries, respectability. Teaching was an admired 
profession, partly because learning was widely recognized as the 
road out of poverty. Little of that is true today. And so science 
(and other) teaching is too often incompetently or uninspiringly 
done, its practitioners, astonishingly, having little or no training in 
their subjects, impatient with the method and in a hurry to get to 
the findings of science - and sometimes themselves unable to 
distinguish science from pseudoscience. Those who do have the 



training often get higher-paying jobs elsewhere. 

Children need hands-on experience with the experimental 
method rather than just reading about science in a book. We can 
be told about oxidation of wax as the explanation of the candle 
flame. But we have a much more vivid sense of what's going on if 
we witness the candle burning briefly in a bell jar until the carbon 
dioxide produced by the burning surrounds the wick, blocks 
access to oxygen, and the flame flickers and dies. We can be 
taught about mitochondria in cells, how they mediate the oxida- 
tion of food like the flame burning the wax, but it's another thing 
altogether to see them under the microscope. We may be told that 
oxygen is necessary for the life of some organisms and not others. 
But we begin really to understand when we test the proposition in 
a bell jar fully depleted of oxygen. What does oxygen do for us? 
Why do we die without it? Where does the oxygen in the air come 
from? How secure is the supply? 

Experiment and the scientific method can be taught in many 
matters other than science. Daniel Kunitz is a friend of mine from 
college. He's spent his life as an innovative junior and senior high 
school social sciences teacher. Want the students to understand 
the Constitution of the United States? You could have them read 
it, Article by Article, and then discuss it in class but, sadly, this 
will put most of them to sleep. Or you could try the Kunitz 
method: you forbid the students to read the Constitution. Instead, 
you assign them, two for each state, to attend a Constitutional 
Convention. You brief each of the thirteen teams in detail on the 
particular interests of their state and region. The South Carolina 
delegation, say, would be told of the primacy of cotton, the 
necessity and morality of the slave trade, the danger posed by the 
industrial north, and so on. The thirteen delegations assemble, 
and with a little faculty guidance, but mainly on their own, over 
some weeks write a constitution. Then they read the real Consti- 
tution. The students have reserved war-making powers to the 
President. The delegates of 1787 assigned them to Congress. 
Why? The students have freed the slaves. The original Constitu- 
tional Convention did not. Why? This takes more preparation by 
the teachers and more work by the students, but the experience is 
unforgettable. It's hard not to think that the nations of the Earth 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

would be in better shape if every citizen went through a compara- 
ble experience. 

We need more money for teachers' training and salaries, and 
for laboratories. But all across America, school-bond issues are 
regularly voted down. No one suggests that property taxes be used 
to provide for the military budget, or for agriculture subsidies, or 
for cleaning up toxic wastes. Why just education? Why not 
support it from general taxes on the local and state levels? What 
about a special education tax for those industries with special 
needs for technically trained workers? 

American schoolchildren don't do enough schoolwork. There 
are 180 days in the standard school year in the United States, as 
compared with 220 in South Korea, about 230 in Germany, and 
243 in Japan. Children in some of these countries go to school on 
Saturday. The average American high school student spends 3.5 
hours a week on homework. The total time devoted to studies, in 
and out of the classroom, is about 20 hours a week. Japanese 
fifth-graders average 33 hours a week. Japan, with half the 
population of the United States, produces twice as many scientists 
and engineers with advanced degrees every year. 

During four years of high school, American students spend less 
than 1,500 hours on such subjects as mathematics, science and 
history. Japanese, French and German students spend more than 
twice as much time. A 1994 report commissioned by the US 
Department of Education notes: 

The traditional school day must now fit in a whole set of 
requirements for what has been called the 'new work of the 
schools' - education about personal safety, consumer affairs, 
AIDS, conservation and energy, family life and driver's 

So, because of the deficiencies of society and the inadequacies of 
education in the home, only about three hours a day are spent in 
high school on the core academic subjects. 

There's a widely held perception that science is 'too hard' for 
ordinary people. We can see this reflected in the statistic that only 
around 10 per cent of American high school students ever opt for 



a course in physics. What makes science suddenly 'too hard'? Why 
isn't it too hard for the citizens of all those other countries that are 
outperforming the United States? What has happened to the 
American genius for science, technical innovation and hard work? 
Americans once took enormous pride in their inventors, who 
pioneered the telegraph, telephone, electric light, phonograph, 
automobile and airplane. Except for computers, all that seems a 
thing of the past. Where did all that 'Yankee ingenuity' go? 

Most American children aren't stupid. Part of the reason they 
don't study hard is that they receive few tangible benefits when 
they do. Competency (that is, actually knowing the stuff) in verbal 
skills, mathematics, science and history these days doesn't 
increase earnings for average young men in their first eight years 
out of high school, many of whom take service rather than 
industrial jobs. 

In the productive sectors of the economy, though, the story is 
often different. There are furniture factories, for example, in 
danger of going out of business - not because there are no 
customers, but because so few entry-level workers can do simple 
arithmetic. A major electronics company reports that 80 per cent 
of its job applicants can't pass a fifth-grade mathematics test. The 
United States already is losing some $40 billion a year (mainly in 
lost productivity and the cost of remedial education) because 
workers, to too great a degree, can't read, write, count or think. 

In a survey by the US National Science Board of 139 high 
technology companies in the United States, the chief causes of the 
research and development decline attributable to national policy 
were (1) lack of a long-term strategy for dealing with the problem; 
(2) too little attention paid to the training of future scientists and 
engineers; (3) too much investment in 'defence', and not enough 
in civilian research and development; and (4) too little attention 
paid to pre-college education. Ignorance feeds on ignorance. 
Science phobia is contagious. 

Those in America with the most favourable view of science tend 
to be young, well-to-do, college-educated white males. But three- 
quarters of new American workers in the next decade will be 
women, nonwhites and immigrants. Failing to rouse their enthusi- 
asm, to say nothing of discriminating against them, isn't only 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

unjust, it's also stupid and self-defeating. It deprives the economy 
of desperately needed skilled workers. 

African-American and Hispanic students are doing significantly 
better in standardized science tests now than in the late 1960s, but 
they're the only ones who are. The average maths gap between 
white and black US high school graduates is still huge - two to 
three grade levels; but the gap between white US high school 
graduates and those in, say, Japan, Canada, Great Britain or 
Finland is more than twice as large (with the US students behind). 
If you're poorly motivated and poorly educated, you won't know 
much - no mystery there. Suburban African-Americans with 
college-educated parents do just as well in college as suburban 
whites with college-educated parents. According to some statis- 
tics, enrolling a poor child in a Head Start programme doubles his 
or her chances to be employed later in life; one who completes an 
Upward Bound programme is four times as likely to get a college 
education. If we're serious, we know what to do. 

What about college and university? There are obvious steps to 
take: improved status based on teaching success, and promotions 
of teachers based on the performance of their students in stand- 
ardized, double-blind tests; salaries for teachers that approach 
what they could get in industry; more scholarships, fellowships 
and laboratory equipment; imaginative, inspiring curricula and 
textbooks in which the leading faculty members play a major role; 
laboratory courses required of everyone to graduate; and special 
attention paid to those traditionally steered away from science. 
We should also encourage the best academic scientists to spend 
more time on public education - textbooks, lectures, newspaper 
and magazine articles, TV appearances. And a mandatory fresh- 
man or sophomore (first- or second-year) course in sceptical 
thinking and the methods of science might be worth trying. 

The mystic William Blake stared at the Sun and saw angels there, 
while others, more worldly, 'perceived only an object of about the 
size and colour of a golden guinea'. Did Blake really see angels in 
the Sun, or was it some perceptual or cognitive error? I know of 
no photograph of the Sun that shows anything of the sort. Did 
Blake see what the camera and the telescope cannot? Or does the 



explanation lie much more inside Blake's head than outside? And 
is not the truth of the Sun's nature as revealed by modern science 
far more wonderful: no mere angels or gold coin, but an enormous 
sphere into which a million Earths could be packed, in the core of 
which the hidden nuclei of atoms are being jammed together, 
hydrogen transfigured into helium, the energy latent in hydrogen 
for billions of years released, the Earth and other planets warmed 
and lit thereby, and the same process repeated four hundred 
billion times elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy? 

The blueprints, detailed instructions, and job orders for build- 
ing you from scratch would fill about 1,000 encyclopedia volumes 
if written out in English. Yet every cell in your body has a set of 
these encyclopedias. A quasar is so far away that the light we see 
from it began its intergalactic voyage before the Earth was 
formed. Every person on Earth is descended from the same 
not-quite-human ancestors in East Africa a few million years ago, 
making us all cousins. 

Whenever I think about any of these discoveries, I feel a tingle of 
exhilaration. My heart races. I can't help it. Science is an astonish- 
ment and a delight. Every time a spacecraft flies by a new world, I 
find myself amazed. Planetary scientists ask themselves: 'Oh, is that 
the way it is? Why didn't we think of that?' But nature is always more 
subtle, more intricate, more elegant than what we are able to 
imagine. Given our manifest human limitations, what is surprising is 
that we have been able to penetrate so far into the secrets of Nature. 

Nearly every scientist has experienced, in a moment of discov- 
ery or sudden understanding, a reverential astonishment. Science 
- pure science, science not for any practical application but for its 
own sake - is a deeply emotional matter for those who practise it, 
as well as for those nonscientists who every now and then dip in to 
see what's been discovered lately. 

And, as in a detective story, it's a joy to frame key questions, to 
work through alternative explanations, and maybe even to 
advance the process of scientific discovery. Consider these exam- 
ples, some very simple, some not, chosen more or less at random: 

• Could there be an undiscovered integer between 6 and 7? 

• Could there be an undiscovered chemical element between 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

atomic number 6 (which is carbon) and atomic number 7 (which 
is nitrogen)? 

• Yes, the new preservative causes cancer in rats. But what if you 
have to give a person, who weighs much more than a rat, a 
pound a day of the stuff to induce cancer? In that case, maybe 
the new preservative isn't all that dangerous. Might the benefit 
of having food preserved for long periods outweigh the small 
additional risk of cancer? Who decides? What data do they 
need to make a prudent decision? 

• In a 3.8 billion-year-old rock, you find a ratio of carbon isotopes 
typical of living things today, and different from inorganic sedi- 
ments. Do you deduce abundant life on Earth 3.8 billion years 
ago? Or could the chemical remains of more modern organisms 
have infiltrated into the rock? Or is there a way for isotopes to 
separate in the rock apart from biological processes? 

• Sensitive measurements of electrical currents in the human 
brain show that when certain memories or mental processes 
occur, particular regions of the brain go into action. Can our 
thoughts, memories and passions all be generated by particular 
circuitry of the brain neurons? Might it ever be possible to 
simulate such circuitry in a robot? Would it ever be feasible to 
insert new circuits or alter old ones in the brain in such a way as 
to change opinions, memories, emotions, logical deductions? Is 
such tampering wildly dangerous? 

• Your theory of the origin of the solar system predicts many flat 
discs of gas and dust all over the Milky Way galaxy. You look 
through the telescope and you find flat discs everywhere. You 
happily conclude that your theory is confirmed. But it turns out 
the discs you sighted were spiral galaxies far beyond the Milky 
Way, and much too big to be nascent solar systems. Should you 
abandon your theory? Or should you look for a different kind 
of disc? Or is this just an expression of your unwillingness to 
abandon a discredited hypothesis? 

• A growing cancer sends out an all-points bulletin to the cells 
lining adjacent blood vessels: 'We need blood,' the message 
says. The endothelial cells obligingly build blood vessel bridges 
to supply the cancer cells with blood. How does this come 
about? Can the message be intercepted or cancelled? 



You mix violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red paints and 
make a murky brown. Then you mix light of the same colours 
and you get white. What's going on? 

In the genes of humans and many other animals there are long, 
repetitive sequences of hereditary information (called 'non- 
sense'). Some of these sequences cause genetic diseases. Could 
it be that segments of the DNA are rogue nucleic acids, 
reproducing on their own, in business for themselves, disdain- 
ing the well-being of the organism they inhabit? 
Many animals behave strangely just before an earthquake. 
What do they know that seismologists don't? 
The ancient Aztec and the ancient Greek words for 'God' are 
nearly the same. Is this evidence of some contact or commonal- 
ity between the two civilizations, or should we expect occa- 
sional such coincidences between two wholly unrelated 
languages merely by chance? Or could, as Plato thought in the 
Cratylus, certain words be built into us from birth? 
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in the Universe 
as a whole, disorder increases as time goes on. (Of course, locally 
worlds and life and intelligence can emerge, at the cost of a 
decrease in order elsewhere in the Universe.) But if we live in a 
Universe in which the present Big Bang expansion will slow, stop, 
and be replaced by a contraction, might the Second Law then be 
reversed? Can effects precede causes? 

The human body uses concentrated hydrochloric acid in the 
stomach to dissolve food and aid digestion. Why doesn't the 
hydrochloric acid dissolve the stomach? 

The oldest stars seem to be, at the time I'm writing, older than 
the Universe. Like the claim that an acquaintance has children 
older than she is, you don't have to know very much to 
recognize that someone has made a mistake. Who? 
The technology now exists to move individual atoms around, so 
long and complex messages can be written on an ultra- 
microscopic scale. It is also possible to make machines the size 
of molecules. Rudimentary examples of both these 'nano- 
technologies' are now well demonstrated. Where does this take 
us in another few decades? 

In several different laboratories, complex molecules have been 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

found that under suitable conditions make copies of themselves in 
the test tube. Some of these molecules are, like DNA and RNA, 
built out of nucleotides; others are not. Some use enzymes to 
hasten the pace of the chemistry; others do not. Sometimes there 
is a mistake in copying; from that point forward the mistake is 
copied in successive generations of molecules. Thus there get to 
be slightly different species of self-replicating molecules, some of 
which reproduce faster or more efficiently than others. These 
preferentially thrive. As time goes on, the molecules in the test 
tube become more and more efficient. We are beginning to 
witness the evolution of molecules. How much insight does this 
provide about the origin of life? 

• Why is ordinary ice white, but pure glacial ice blue? 

• Life has been found miles below the surface of the Earth. How 
deep does it go? 

• The Dogon people in the Republic of Mali are said by a French 
anthropologist to have a legend that the star Sirius has an 
extremely dense companion star. Sirius in fact does have such a 
companion, although it requires fairly sophisticated astronomy to 
detect it. So (1) did the Dogon people descend from a forgotten 
civilization that had large optical telescopes and theoretical astro- 
physics? Or, (2) were they instructed by extraterrestrials? Or, (3) 
did the Dogon hear about the white dwarf companion of Sirius 
from a visiting European? Or, (4) was the French anthropologist 
mistaken and the Dogon in fact never had such a legend? 

Why should it be hard for scientists to get science across? Some 
scientists, including some very good ones, tell me they'd love to 
popularize, but feel they lack talent in this area. Knowing and 
explaining, they say, are not the same thing. What's the secret? 

There's only one, I think: don't talk to the general audience as 
you would to your scientific colleagues. There are terms that 
convey your meaning instantly and accurately to fellow experts. 
You may parse these phrases every day in your professional work. 
But they do no more than mystify an audience of non-specialists. 
Use the simplest possible language. Above all, remember how it 
was before you yourself grasped whatever it is you're explaining. 
Remember the misunderstandings that you almost fell into, and 



note them explicitly. Keep firmly in mind that there was a time 
when you didn't understand any of this either. Recapitulate the 
first steps that led you from ignorance to knowledge. Never forget 
that native intelligence is widely distributed in our species. 
Indeed, it is the secret of our success. 

The effort involved is slight, the benefits great. Among the 
potential pitfalls are oversimplification, the need to be sparing 
with qualifications (and quantifications), inadequate credit given 
to the many scientists involved, and insufficient distinctions drawn 
between helpful analogy and reality. Doubtless, compromises 
must be made. 

The more you make such presentations, the clearer it is which 
approaches work and which do not. There is a natural selection of 
metaphors, images, analogies, anecdotes. After a while you find 
that you can get almost anywhere you want to go, walking on 
consumer-tested stepping-stones. You can then fine-tune your 
presentations for the needs of a given audience. 

Like some editors and television producers, some scientists 
believe the public is too ignorant or too stupid to understand 
science, that the enterprise of popularization is fundamentally a 
lost cause, or even that it's tantamount to fraternization, if not 
outright cohabitation, with the enemy. Among the many criti- 
cisms that could be made of this judgement - along with its 
insufferable arrogance and its neglect of a host of examples of 
highly successful science popularizations - is that it is self- 
confirming. And also, for the scientists involved, self-defeating. 

Large-scale government support for science is fairly new, dating 
back only to World War Two - although patronage of a few 
scientists by the rich and powerful is much older. With the end of 
the Cold War, the national defence trump card that provided 
support for all sorts of fundamental science became virtually 
unplayable. Only partly for this reason, most scientists, I think, 
are now comfortable with the idea of popularizing science. (Since 
nearly all support for science comes from the public coffers, it 
would be an odd flirtation with suicide for scientists to oppose 
competent popularization.) What the public understands and 
appreciates, it is more likely to support. I don't mean writing 
articles for Scientific American, say, that are read by science 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

enthusiasts and scientists in other fields. I'm not just talking about 
teaching introductory courses for undergraduates. I'm talking about 
efforts to communicate the substance and approach of science in 
newspapers, magazines, on radio and television, in lectures for the 
general public, and in elementary, middle and high school textbooks. 

Of course there are judgement calls to be made in popularizing. 
It's important neither to mystify nor to patronize. In attempting to 
prod public interest, scientists have on occasion gone too far - for 
example, in drawing unjustified religious conclusions. Astrono- 
mer George Smoot described his discovery of small irregularities 
in the ratio radiation left over from the Big Bang as 'seeing God 
face-to-face'. Physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman described 
the Higgs boson, a hypothetical building block of matter, as 'the 
God particle', and so titled a book. (In my opinion, they're all 
God particles.) If the Higgs boson doesn't exist, is the God 
hypothesis disproved? Physicist Frank Tipler proposes that com- 
puters in the remote future will prove the existence of God and 
work our bodily resurrection. 

Periodicals and television can strike sparks as they give us a 
glimpse of science, and this is very important. But - apart from 
apprenticeship or well-structured classes and seminars - the best 
way to popularize science is through textbooks, popular books, 
CD-ROMs and laser discs. You can mull things over, go at your 
own pace, revisit the hard parts, compare texts, dig deep. It has to 
be done right, though, and in the schools especially it generally 
isn't. There, as the philosopher John Passmore comments, science 
is often presented 

as a matter of learning principles and applying them by 
routine procedures. It is learned from textbooks, not by 
reading the works of great scientists or even the day-to-day 
contributions to the scientific literature . . . The beginning 
scientist, unlike the beginning humanist, does not have an 
immediate contact with genius. Indeed . . . school courses 
can attract quite the wrong sort of person into science - 
unimaginative boys and girls who like routine. 

I hold that popularization of science is successful if, at first, it does 



no more than spark the sense of wonder. To do that, it is sufficient 
to provide a glimpse of the findings of science without thoroughly 
explaining how those findings were achieved. It is easier to 
portray the destination than the journey. But, where possible, 
popularizers should try to chronicle some of the mistakes, false 
starts, dead ends and apparently hopeless confusion along the 
way. At least every now and then, we should provide the evidence 
and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. This converts 
obedient assimilation of new knowledge into personal discovery. 
When you make the finding yourself - even if you're the last 
person on Earth to see the light - you never forget it. 

As a youngster, I was inspired by the popular science books 
and articles of George Gamow, James Jeans, Arthur Edding- 
ton, J.B.S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Rachel Carson and Arthur 
C. Clarke - all of them trained in, and most of them leading 
practitioners of science. The popularity of well-written, well- 
explained, deeply imaginative books on science that touch our 
hearts as well as our minds seems greater in the last twenty 
years than ever before, and the number and disciplinary 
diversity of scientists writing these books is likewise unprec- 
edented. Among the best contemporary scientist-popularizers, 
I think of Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson, Lewis Thomas and 
Richard Dawkins in biology; Steven Weinberg, Alan Lightman 
and Kip Thorne in physics; Roald Hoffmann in chemistry; and 
the early works of Fred Hoyle in astronomy. Isaac Asimov 
wrote capably on everything. (And while requiring calculus, the 
most consistently exciting, provocative and inspiring science 
popularization of the last few decades seems to me to be 
Volume I of Richard Feynman's Introductory Lectures on 
Physics.) Nevertheless, current efforts are clearly nowhere near 
commensurate with the public good. And, of course, if we can't 
read, we can't benefit from such works, no matter how inspiring 
they are. 

I want us to rescue Mr 'Buckley' and the millions like him. I also 
want us to stop turning out leaden, incurious, uncritical and 
unimaginative high school seniors. Our species needs, and 
deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic under- 
standing of how the world works. 


No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any 
society with a hope of surviving well into the next century with its 
fundamental values intact - not just science as engaged in by its 
practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire 
human community. And if the scientists will not bring this about, 
who will? 



House on Fire 

The Lord [Buddha] replied to the Venerable Sariputra: 
'In some village, city, market town, country district, 
province, kingdom, or capital there lived a householder, 
old, advanced in years, decrepit, weak in health and 
strength, but rich, wealthy, and well-to-do. His house was a 
large one, both extensive and high, and it was old, having 
been built a long time ago. It was inhabited by many living 
beings, some two, three, four, or five hundred. It had one 
single door only. It was thatched with straw, its terraces had 
fallen down, its foundations were rotten, its walls, 
matting-screens, and plaster were in an advanced state of 
decay. Suddenly a great blaze of fire broke out, and the 
house started burning on all sides. And that man had many 
young sons, five, or ten, or twenty, and he himself got out of 
the house. 

'When that man saw his own house ablaze all around with 
the great mass of fire, he became afraid and trembled, his 
mind became agitated, and he thought to himself: "I, it is 
true, have been competent enough to run out of the door, 
and to escape from my burning house, quickly and safely, 
without being touched or scorched by that great mass of fire. 
But what about my sons, my young boys, my little sons? 

* Written with Ann Druyan. 


House on Fire 

There, in this burning house, they play, sport, and amuse 
themselves with all sorts of games. They do not know that 
this dwelling is afire, they do not understand it, do not 
perceive it, pay no attention to it, and so they feel no 
agitation. Though threatened by this great [fire], though in 
such close contact with so much ill, they pay no attention to 
their danger, and make no efforts to get out." ' 

from The Saddharmapundarika, 
in Buddhist Scriptures, Edward Conze, ed. 

(Penguin Books, 1959) 

One of the reasons it's so interesting to write for Parade 
magazine is feedback. With eighty million readers you can 
really sample the opinion of the citizens of the United States. You 
can understand how people think, what their anxieties and hopes 
are, and even perhaps where we have lost our way. 

An abbreviated version of the preceding chapter, emphasizing 
the performance of students and teachers, was published in 
Parade. I was flooded with mail. Some people denied there was a 
problem; others said that Americans were losing cutting-edge 
intelligence and know-how. Some thought there were easy solu- 
tions; others, that the problems were too deeply ingrained to fix. 
Many opinions were a surprise to me. 

A tenth-grade teacher in Minnesota handed out copies of the 
article and asked his students to tell me what they thought. Here's 
what some American high school students wrote (spelling, gram- 
mar and punctuation as in the original letters): 

• Not a Americans are stupid We just rank lower in school big deal. 

• Maybe that's good that we are not as smart as the other 
countries. So then we can just import all of our products and 
then we don't have to spend all of our money on the parts for 
the goods. 

• And if other countries are doing better, what does it matter, 
their most likely going to come over the U.S. anyway? 

• Our society is doing just fine with what discoveries we are 
making. It's going slowly, but the cure for cancer is coming 
right along. 



The U.S. has its own learning system and it may not be as 
advanced as theirs, but it is just as good. Otherwise I think your 
article is a very educating one. 

Not one kid in this school likes science. I really didn't under- 
stand the point of the article. I thought that it was very boring. 
I'm just not into anything like that. 

I am studying to be a lawyer and frankly I do agree with my 
parents when they say I have an attitude problem toward science. 
It's true that some American kids don't try, but we could be 
smarter than any other country if we wanted to. 
Instead of homework, kids will watch TV. I have to agree that I 
do it. I have cut it down from about 4 hrs. a day. 
I don't believe it is the school systems fault, I think the whole 
country is brought up with not enough emphasis on school. I 
know my mom would rather be watching me play basketball or 
soccer, instead of helping me with an assignment. Most of the 
kids I know could care less about making sure there doing there 
work right. 

I don't think American kids are stupid. It just they don't study 

hard enough because most of kids work . . . Lots of people said 

that Asian people are smarter than American and they are 

good at everything, but that's not true. They are not good at 

sports. They don't have time to play sports. 

I'm in sports myself, and I feel that the other kids on my team 

push to you to excel more in that sport than in school. 

If we want to rank first, we could go to school all day and not 

have any social life. 

I can see why a lot of science teachers would get mad at you for 
insulting there job. 

Maybe if the teachers could be more exciting, the children will 
want to learn . . . If science is made to be fun, kids will want to 
learn. To accomplish this, it needs to be started early on, not 
just taught as facts and figures. 

I really find it hard to believe those facts about the U.S. in 

If we are so far behind, how come Michael Gorbachev came to 
Minnesota and Montana to Control Data to see how we run are 
computers and thing? 


House on Fire 

• Around 33 hours for fifth graders! In my opinion thats too 
much that's almost as many hours as a full job practically. So 
instead of homework we can be making money. 

• When you put down how far behind we are in science and 
math, why don't you try tell us this in a little nicer manner? . . . 
Have a little pride in your country and its capabilities. 

• I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very 
flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point. 

All in all, these students don't think there's much of a problem; 
and if there is, not much can be done about it. Many also 
complained that the lectures, classroom discussions and home- 
work were 'boring'. Especially for an MTV generation beset by 
attention deficit disorders in various degrees of severity, it is 
boring. But spending three or four grades practising once again 
the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions 
would bore anyone, and the tragedy is that, say, elementary 
probability theory is within reach of these students. Likewise for 
the forms of plants and animals presented without evolution; 
history presented as wars, dates and kings without the role of 
obedience to authority, greed, incompetence and ignorance; 
English without new words entering the language and old words 
disappearing; and chemistry without where the elements come 
from. The means of awakening these students are at hand and 
ignored. Since most school children emerge with only a tiny 
fraction of what they've been taught permanently engraved in 
their long-term memories, isn't it essential to infect them with 
consumer-tested topics that aren't boring . . . and a zest for 

Most adults who wrote thought there's a substantial problem. I 
received letters from parents about inquisitive children willing to 
work hard, passionate about science but with no adequate com- 
munity or school resources to satisfy their interests. Other letters 
told of parents who knew nothing about science sacrificing their 
own comfort so their children could have science books, micro- 
scopes, telescopes, computers or chemistry sets; of parents teach- 
ing their children that hard work will get them out of poverty; of a 
grandmother bringing tea to a student up late at night still doing 



homework; of peer pressure not to do well in school because 'it 
makes the other kids look bad'. 

Here's a sampling - not an opinion poll, but representative 
commentary - of other responses by parents: 

• Do parents understand that you can't be a full human being if 
you're ignorant? Are there books at home? How about a 
magnifying glass? Encyclopedia? Do they encourage children 
to learn? 

• Parents have to teach patience and perseverance. The most 
important gift they can give their children is the ethos of hard 
work, but they can't just talk about it. The kids who learn to 
work hard are the ones who see their parents work hard and 
never give up. 

• My child is fascinated by science, but she doesn't get any in 
school or on TV. 

• My child is identified as gifted, but the school has no program 
for science enrichment. The guidance counselor told me to send 
her to a private school, but we can't afford a private school. 

• There's enormous peer pressure; shy children don't want to 
'stand out' by doing well in science. When my daughter reached 
13 and 14, her life-long interest in science seemed to disappear. 

Parents also had much to say about teachers, and some of the 
comments by teachers echoed the parents. For example, people 
complained that teachers are trained how to teach but not what to 
teach: that a large number of physics and chemistry teachers have 
no degree in physics or chemistry and are 'uncomfortable and 
incompetent' in teaching science; that teachers themselves have 
too much science and maths anxiety; that they resist being asked 
questions, or they answer, 'It's in the book. Look it up.' Some 
complained that the biology teacher was a 'Creationist'; some 
complained that he wasn't. Among other comments by or about 

• We are breeding a collection of half-wits. 

• It's easier to memorize than to think. Kids have to be taught to 


House on Fire 

The teachers and curricula are 'dumbing down' to the lowest 
common denominator. 

Why is the basketball coach teaching chemistry? 

Teachers are required to spend much too much time on 

discipline and on 'social curricula'. There's no incentive to use 

our own judgment. The 'brass' are always looking over our 


Abandon tenure in schools and colleges. Get rid of the 
deadwood. Leave hiring and firing to principals, deans, and 

My joy in teaching was repeatedly thwarted by militaristic-type 

Teachers should be rewarded on the basis of performance - 
especially student performance on standardized, nationwide 
tests, and improvements in student performance on such tests 
from one year to the next. 

Teachers are stilling our children's minds by telling them 
they're not 'smart' enough - for example, for a career in 
physics. Why not give the students a chance to take the course? 
My son was promoted even though he's reading two grade 
levels behind the rest of his class. The reason given was social, 
not educational. He'll never catch up unless he's left back. 
Science should be required in all school (and especially high 
school) curricula. It should be carefully coordinated with the 
math courses the students are taking at the same time. 
Most homework is 'busy work' rather than something that 
makes you think. 

I think Diane Ravitch [New Republic, 6 March 1989] tells it like 
it is: 'As a female student at Hunter High School in New York 
City recently explained, "I make straight As, but I never talk 
about it . . . It's cool to do really badly. If you are interested in 
school and you show it, you're a nerd" . . . The popular culture 
- through television, movies, magazines, and videos - inces- 
santly drums in the message to young women that it is better to 
be popular, sexy, and "cool" than to be intelligent, accom- 
plished, and outspoken . . .'In 1986 researchers found a similar 
anti-academic ethos among both high school and female students 
in Washington, D.C. They noted that able students faced 



strong peer pressure not to succeed in school. If they did well in 
their studies, they might be accused of 'acting white'. 

• Schools could easily give much more recognition and rewards 
to kids who are outstanding in science and math. Why don't 
they? Why not special jackets with school letters? Announce- 
ments in assembly and the school newspaper and the local 
press? Local industry and social organizations to give special 
awards? This costs very little and could overcome peer pressure 
not to excel. 

• Headstart is the single most effective . . . program for improv- 
ing children's understanding of science and everything else. 

There were also many passionate, highly controversial opinions 
expressed which, at the very least, give a sense of how deeply 
people feel about the subject. Here's a smattering: 

• All the smart kids are looking for the fast buck these days, so 
they become lawyers, not scientists. 

• I don't want you to improve education. Then there'd be nobody 
to drive the cabs. 

• The problem in science education is that God isn't sufficiently 

• The fundamentalist teaching that science is 'humanism' and is 
to be mistrusted is the reason nobody understands science. 
Religions are afraid of the sceptical thinking at the heart of 
science. Students are brainwashed not to accept scientific 
thinking long before they get to college. 

• Science has discredited itself. It works for politicians. It makes 
weapons, it lies about marijuana 'hazards', it ignores about the 
dangers of agent orange, etc. 

• The public schools don't work. Abandon them. Let's have 
private schools only. 

• We have let the advocates of permissiveness, fuzzy thinking 
and rampant socialism destroy what was once a great educa- 
tional system. 

• The school system has enough money. The problem is that the 
white males, usually coaches, who run the schools would never 
(and I mean never) hire an intellectual . . . They care more 


House on Fire 

about the football team than the curriculum and hire only 
submediocre, flag-waving, God-loving automatons to teach. 
What kind of students can emerge from schools that oppress, 
punish and neglect logical thinking? 

• Release schools from the stranglehold of the ACLU [American 
Civil Liberties Union], NEA [National Education Association], 
and others engaged in the breakdown of the discipline and 
competence in the schools. 

• I'm afraid you have no understanding of the country in which 
you live. The people are incredibly ignorant and fearful. They 
will not tolerate listening to any [new] idea . . . Don't you get 
it? The system survives only because it has an ignorant God- 
fearing population. There's a reason lots of [educated people] 
are unemployed. 

• I'm sometimes required to explain technological issues to 
Congressional staffers. Believe me, there's a problem in science 
education in this country. 

There is no single solution to the problem of illiteracy in science - 
or maths, history, English, geography, and many of the other 
skills which our society needs more of. The responsibilities are 
broadly shared - parents, the voting public, local school boards, 
the media, teachers, administrators, federal, state and logical 
governments, plus, of course, the students themselves. At every 
level teachers complain that the problem lies in earlier grades. 
And first-grade teachers can with justice despair of teaching 
children with learning deficits because of malnutrition, or no 
books in the home, or a culture of violence in which the leisure to 
think is unavailable. 

I know very well from my own experience how much a child can 
benefit from parents who have a little learning and are able to pass 
it on. Even small improvements in the education, communication 
skills and passion for learning in one generation might work much 
larger improvements in the next. I think of this every time I hear a 
complaint that school and collegiate 'standards' are falling, or that 
a Bachelor's degree doesn't 'mean' what it once did. 

Dorothy Rich, an innovative teacher from Yonkers, New York, 
believes that far more important than specific academic subjects is 



the honing of key skills which she lists as: 'confidence, persever- 
ance, caring, teamwork, common sense and problem-solving.' To 
which I'd add sceptical thinking and an aptitude for wonder. 

At the same time, children with special abilities and skills need 
to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. 
Challenging programmes for the 'gifted' are sometimes decried as 
'elitism'. Why aren't intensive practice sessions for varsity foot- 
ball, baseball and basketball players and interschool competition 
deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes partici- 
pate. There is a self-defeating double-standard at work here, 

The problems in public education in science and other subjects 
run so deep that it's easy to despair and conclude that they can 
never be fixed. And yet, there are institutions hidden away in big 
cities and small towns that provide reason for hope, places that 
strike the spark, awaken slumbering curiosities and ignite the 
scientist that lives in all of us: 

• The enormous metallic iron meteorite in front of you is as full 
of holes as a Swiss cheese. Gingerly you reach out to touch it. It 
feels smooth and cold. The thought occurs to you that this is a 
piece of another world. How did it get to Earth? What 
happened in space to make it so beat up? 

• The display shows maps of eighteenth-century London, and the 
spread of a horrifying cholera epidemic. People in one house 
got it from people in neighbouring houses. By running the wave 
of infection back, you can see where it started. It's like being a 
detective. And when you pinpoint the origin you find it's a 
place with open sewers. It occurs to you that there's a life and 
death reason why modern cities have adequate sanitation. You 
think of all those cities and towns and villages in the world that 
don't. You get to thinking maybe there's a simpler, cheaper 
way to do it . . . 

• You're crawling through a long, utterly black tunnel. There are 
sudden turns, ups and downs. You go through a forest of 
feathery things, beady things, big solid round things. You 
imagine what it must be like to be blind. You think about how 


House on Fire 

little we rely on our sense of touch. In the dark and the quiet, 
you're alone with your thoughts. Somehow the experience is 
exhilarating . . . 

• You examine a detailed reconstruction of a procession of 
priests climbing up one of the great ziggurats of Sumer, or a 
gorgeously painted tomb in the Valley of the Kings in ancient 
Egypt, or a house in ancient Rome, or a full-scale turn-of-the- 
century street in small town America. You think of all those 
civilizations, so different from yours, how if you'd been born 
into them you would have thought them completely natural, 
how you'd consider our society - if you had somehow been told 
of it - as weird . . . 

• You squeeze the eyedropper, and a drop of pond water drips 
out on to the microscope stage. You look at the projected 
image. The drop is full of life, strange beings swimming, 
crawling, tumbling; high dramas of pursuit and escape, triumph 
and tragedy. This is a world populated by beings far more 
exotic than in any science-fiction movie . . . 

• Seated in the theatre, you find yourself inside the head of an 
eleven-year-old boy. You look out through his eyes. You 
encounter his typical daily crises: bullies, authoritarian adults, 
crushes on girls. You hear the voice inside his head. You 
witness his neurological and hormonal responses to his social 
environment. And you get to wonder how you work on the 
inside . . . 

• Following the simple instructions, you type in the commands. 
What will the Earth look like if we continue to burn coal, oil 
and gas, and double the amount of carbon dioxide in the 
atmosphere? How much hotter will it be? How much polar ice 
will melt? How much higher will the oceans be? Why are we 
pouring so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? What if 
we put five times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? 
Also, how could anybody know what the future climate will be 
like? It gets you thinking . . . 

In my childhood, I was taken to the American Museum of Natural 
History in New York City. I was transfixed by the dioramas - 
lifelike representations of animals and their habitats all over the 



world. Penguins on the dimly lit Antarctic ice; okapi in the bright 
African veldt; a family of gorillas, the male beating his chest, in a 
shaded forest glade; an American grizzly bear standing on his hind 
legs, ten or twelve feet tall, and staring me right in the eye. These 
were three-dimensional freeze-frames captured by some genie of 
the lamp. Did the grizzly move just then? Did the gorilla blink? 
Might the genie return, lift the spell and permit this gorgeous 
array of living things to go on with their lives as, jaws agape, I 

Kids have an irresistible urge to touch. Back in those days, the 
most commonly heard two words in museums were 'don't touch'. 
Decades ago there was almost nothing 'hands-on' in museums of 
science or natural history, not even a simulated tidal pool in which 
you could pick up a crab and inspect it. The closest thing to an 
interactive exhibit that I knew were the scales in the Hayden 
Planetarium, one for each planet. Weighing a mere forty pounds 
on Earth, there was something reassuring in the thought that if 
only you lived on Jupiter, you would weigh a hundred pounds. 
But sadly, on the Moon you would weigh only seven pounds; on 
the Moon it seemed you would hardly be there at all. 

Today, children are encouraged to touch, to poke, to run 
through a branched contingency tree of questions and answers via 
computer, or to make funny noises and see what the sound waves 
look like. Even kids who don't get everything out of the exhibit, 
or who don't even get the point of the exhibit, usually extract 
something valuable. You go to these museums and you're struck 
by the wide-eyed looks of wonder, by kids racing from exhibit to 
exhibit, by the triumphant smiles of discovery. They're wildly 
popular. Almost as many of us go to them each year as attend 
professional baseball, basketball and football games combined. 

These exhibits do not replace instruction in school or at home, 
but they awaken and excite. A great science museum inspires a 
child to read a book, or take a course, or return to the museum 
again to engage in a process of discovery - and, most important, to 
learn the method of scientific thinking. 

Another glorious feature of many modern scientific museums is 
a movie theatre showing IMAX or OMNIMAX films. In some 
cases the screen is ten storeys tall and wraps around you. The 


House on Fire 

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, the most popular 
museum on Earth, has premiered in its Langley Theater some of 
the best of these films. To Fly brings a catch to my throat even 
after five or six viewings. I've seen religious leaders of many 
denominations witness Blue Planet and be converted on the spot 
to the need to protect the Earth's environment. 

Not every exhibit and science museum is exemplary. A few still 
are commercials for firms that have contributed money to pro- 
mote their products - how an automobile engine works or the 
'cleanliness' of one fossil fuel as compared to another. Too many 
museums that claim to be about science are really about tech- 
nology and medicine. Too many biology exhibits are still afraid to 
mention the key idea of modern biology: evolution. Beings 
'develop' or 'emerge', but never evolve. The absence of humans 
from the deep fossil record is underplayed. We are shown nothing 
of the anatomical and DNA near-identity between humans and 
chimps or gorillas. Nothing is displayed on complex organic 
molecules in space and on other worlds, nor about experiments 
showing the stuff of life forming in enormous numbers in the 
known atmospheres of other worlds and the presumptive atmos- 
phere of the early Earth. A notable exception: the Natural 
History Museum of The Smithsonian Institution once had an 
unforgettable exhibit on evolution. It began with two cockroaches 
in a modern kitchen with open cereal boxes and other food. Left 
alone for a few weeks, the place was crowded with cockroaches, 
buckets of them everywhere, competing for the little food now 
available, and the long-term hereditary advantage that a slightly 
better adapted cockroach might have over its competitors became 
crystal clear. Also, too, many planetaria are still devoted to 
picking out constellations rather than travelling to other worlds, 
and depicting the evolution of galaxies, stars and planets; they 
also have an insect-like projector always visible which robs the sky 
of its reality. 

Perhaps the grandest museum exhibit can't be seen. It has no 
home: George Awad is one of the leading architectural model 
makers in America, specializing in skyscrapers. He is also a 
dedicated student of astronomy who has made a spectacular 
model of the Universe. Starting with a prosaic scene on Earth, and 



following a scheme proposed by the designers Charles and Ray 
Eames, he goes progressively by factors of ten to show us the 
whole Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way and the Universe. 
Every astronomical body is meticulously detailed. You can lose 
yourself in them. It's one of the best tools I know of to explain the 
scale and nature of the Universe to children. Isaac Asimov 
described it as 'the most imaginative representation of the uni- 
verse that I have ever seen, or could have conceived of. I could 
have wandered through it for hours, seeing something new at 
every turn that I hadn't observed before.' Versions of it ought to 
be available throughout the country - for stirring the imagination, 
for inspiration and for teaching. But instead, Mr Awad cannot 
give this exhibit to any major science museum in the country. No 
one is willing to devote to it the floor space needed. As I write, it 
still sits forlornly, crated in storage. 

The population of my town, Ithaca, New York, doubles to a grand 
total of about 50,000 when Cornell University and Ithaca College 
are in session. Ethnically diverse, surrounded by farmland, it has 
suffered, like so much of the northeast, the decline of its 
nineteenth-century manufacturing base. Half the children at Bev- 
erly J. Martin elementary school, which our daughter attended, 
live below the poverty line. Those are the kids that two volunteer 
science teachers, Debbie Levin and lima Levine, worried about 
most. It didn't seem right that for some, the children of Cornell 
faculty, say, even the sky wasn't the limit. For others there was no 
access to the liberating power of science education. Starting in the 
1960s, they made regular trips to the school, dragging their 
portable library cart, laden with household chemicals and other 
familiar items to convey something of the magic of science. They 
dreamed of creating a place for kids to go, where they could get a 
personal, hands-on feel for science. 

In 1983 Levin and Levine placed a small ad in our local paper 
inviting the community to discuss the idea. Fifty people showed 
up. From that group came the first board of directors of the 
Sciencenter. Within a year they secured exhibition space in the 
first floor of an unrented office building. When the owner found a 
paying tenant, the tadpoles and litmus paper were packed up 

House on Fire 

again and carted off to a vacant shop. 

Moves to other empty shops followed until an Ithacan named 
Bob Leathers, an architect world-renowned for designing innova- 
tive community-built playgrounds, drew up and donated the plans 
for a permanent Sciencenter. Gifts from local firms provided 
enough money to purchase an abandoned lot from the city and 
then hire an executive director, Charles Trautmann, a Cornell 
civil engineer. He and Leathers travelled to the annual meeting of 
the National Association of Homebuilders in Atlanta. Trautmann 
relates how they told the story 'of a community eager to take 
responsibility for the education of its youth and secured donations 
of many key items such as windows, skylights and lumber'. 

Before they could start building, some of the old pumphouse on 
the site had to be torn down. Members of a Cornell fraternity 
were enlisted. With hardhats and sledge-hammers, they demol- 
ished the place joyfully. 'This is the kind of thing,' they said, 'we 
usually get into trouble for doing.' In two days, they carted away 
200 tons of rubble. 

What followed were images straight out of an America that 
many of us fear has vanished. In the tradition of pioneer barnrais- 
ing, members of the community - bricklayers, doctors, carpen- 
ters, university professors, plumbers, farmers, the very young and 
the very old - all rolled up their sleeves to build the Sciencenter. 

'The continuous seven-days-a-week schedule was maintained,' 
says Trautmann, 'so that anyone would be able to help anytime. 
Everyone was given a job. Experienced volunteers built stairs, 
laid carpet and tile, and trimmed windows. Others painted, nailed 
and carried supplies.' Some 2,200 townspeople donated more than 
40,000 hours. Roughly ten per cent of the construction work was 
performed by people convicted of minor offences; they preferred 
to do something for the community than to sit idle in jail. Ten 
months later, Ithaca had the only community-built science 
museum in the world. 

Among the seventy-five interactive exhibits emphasizing both 
the processes and principles of science are: the Magicam, a 
microscope that visitors can use to view on a colour monitor and 
then photograph any object at 40 times magnification; the world's 
only public connection to the satellite-based National Lightning 



Detection Network; a 6 x 9 ft walk-in camera; a fossil pit seeded 
with local shale where visitors hunt for fossils from 380 million 
years ago and keep their finds; an eight-foot-long boa constrictor 
named 'Spot'; and a dazzling array of other experiments, comput- 
ers and activities. 

Levin and Levine can still be found there, full-time volunteers 
teaching the citizens and scientists of the future. The DeWitt 
Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund supports and extends their dream 
of reaching kids who would ordinarily be denied their scientific 
birthright. Through the Fund's nationwide Youth-ALIVE pro- 
gramme, Ithaca teenagers receive intensive mentoring to develop 
their science, conflict resolution and employment skills. 

Levin and Levine thought science should belong to everyone. 
Their community agreed and made a commitment to realize that 
dream. In the Sciencenter's first year, 55,000 people came from all 
fifty states and sixty countries. Not bad for a small town. It makes 
you wonder what else we could do if we worked together for a 
better future for our kids. 



The Path to Freedom 

We must not believe the many, who say that only free 
people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe 
the philosophers who say that only the educated are free. 

Epictetus, Roman philosopher 
and former slave, Discourses 

Federick Bailey was a slave. As a boy in Maryland in the 
1820s, he had no mother or father to look after him. ('It is a 
common custom,' he later wrote, 'to part children from their 
mothers . . . before the child has reached its twelfth month.') He 
was one of countless millions of slave children whose realistic 
prospects for a hopeful life were nil. 

What Bailey witnessed and experienced in his growing up 
marked him forever: 'I have often been awakened at the dawn 
of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of 
mine, whom [the overseer] used to tie up to a joist, and whip 
upon her naked back till she was literally covered with 
blood . . . From the rising till the going down of the sun he was 
cursing, raving, cutting, and slashing among the slaves of the 
field ... He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiend- 
ish barbarity.' 

The slaves had drummed into them, from plantation and pulpit 
* Written with Ann Druyan. 



alike, from courthouse and statehouse, the notion that they were 
hereditary inferiors, that God intended them for their misery. The 
Holy Bible, as countless passages confirmed, condoned slavery. In 
these ways the 'peculiar institution' maintained itself despite its 
monstrous nature - something even its practitioners must have 

There was a most revealing rule: slaves were to remain illiter- 
ate. In the antebellum South, whites who taught a slave to read 
were severely punished. '[To] make a contented slave,' Bailey 
later wrote, 'it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is 
necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as 
possible, to annihilate the power of reason.' This is why the 
slaveholders must control what slaves hear and see and think. This 
is why reading and critical thinking are dangerous, indeed subver- 
sive, in an unjust society. 

So now picture Frederick Bailey in 1828 - a 10-year-old 
African-American child, enslaved, with no legal rights of any 
kind, long since torn from his mother's arms, sold away from the 
tattered remnants of his extended family as if he were a calf or a 
pony, conveyed to an unknown household in the strange city of 
Baltimore, and condemned to a life of drudgery with no prospect 
of reprieve. 

Bailey was sent to work for Capt Hugh Auld and his wife, 
Sophia, moving from plantation to urban bustle, from field 
work to housework. In this new environment, he came every 
day upon letters, books and people who could read. He 
discovered what he called 'this mystery' of reading: there was a 
connection between the letters on the page and the movement 
of the reader's lips, a nearly one-to-one correlation between the 
black squiggles and the sounds uttered. Surreptitiously, he 
studied from young Tommy Auld's Webster's Spelling Book. 
He memorized the letters of the alphabet. He tried to under- 
stand the sounds they stood for. Eventually, he asked Sophia 
Auld to help him learn. Impressed with the intelligence and 
dedication of the boy, and perhaps ignorant of the prohibitions, 
she complied. 

By the time Frederick was spelling words of three and four 
letters, Captain Auld discovered what was going on. Furious, 


The Path to Freedom 

he ordered Sophia to stop. In Frederick's presence he 

A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master - to do 
as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the 
world. Now, if you teach that nigger how to read, there would 
be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. 

Auld chastised Sophia in this way as if Frederick Bailey were not 
there in the room with them, or as if he were a block of wood. 

But Auld had revealed to Bailey the great secret: 'I now 
understood ... the white man's power to enslave the black man. 
From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to 

Without further help from the now reticent and intimidated 
Sophia Auld, Frederick found ways to continue learning how to 
read, including buttonholing white schoolchildren on the streets. 
Then he began teaching his fellow slaves: 'Their minds had been 
starved . . . They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught 
them, because it was the delight of my soul.' 

With his knowledge of reading playing a key role in his escape, 
Bailey fled to New England, where slavery was illegal and black 
people were free. He changed his name to Frederick Douglass 
(after a character in Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake), eluded 
the bounty hunters who tracked down escaped slaves, and became 
one of the greatest orators, writers and political leaders in 
American history. All his life, he understood that literacy had 
been the way out. 

For 99 per cent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could 
read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except 
for first-hand experience, almost everything we knew was passed 
on by word of mouth. As in the game of 'Chinese Whispers', over 
tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be 
distorted and lost. 

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit 
us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of 
our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just 



those in power; to contemplate - with the best teachers - the 
insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds 
that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our 
history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. 
Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we 
are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many 
times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are 
key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic 

By some standards, African-Americans have made enormous 
strides in literacy since Emancipation. In 1860, it is estimated, 
only about five per cent of African-Americans could read and 
write. By 1890, 39 per cent were judged literate by the US census; 
and by 1969, 96 per cent. Between 1940 and 1992, the fraction of 
African-Americans who had completed high school soared from 
seven per cent to 82 per cent. But fair questions can be asked 
about the quality of that education, and the standards of literacy 
tested. These questions apply to every ethnic group. 

A national survey done for the US Department of Education 
paints a picture of a country with more than 40 million barely 
literate adults. Other estimates are much worse. The literacy of 
young adults has slipped dramatically in the last decade. Only 
three to four per cent of the population scores at the highest of 
five reading levels (essentially everybody in this group has gone to 
college). The vast majority have no idea how bad their reading is. 

Only four per cent of those at the highest reading level are in 
poverty, but 43 per cent of those at the lowest reading level are. 
Although it's not the only factor, of course, in general the better 
you read, the more you make - an average of about $12,000 a year 
at the lowest of these reading levels, and about $34,000 a year at 
the highest. It looks to be a necessary if not a sufficient condition 
for making money. And you're much more likely to be in prison if 
you're illiterate or barely literate. (In evaluating these facts, we 
must be careful not to improperly deduce causation from correla- 

Also, marginally literate poorer people tend not to understand 
ballot initiatives that might help them and their children, and in 
stunningly disproportionate numbers fail to vote at all. This works 


The Path to Freedom 

to undermine democracy at its roots. 

If Frederick Douglass as an enslaved child could teach himself 
into literacy and greatness, why should anyone in our more 
enlightened day and age remain unable to read? Well, it's not that 
simple, in part because few of us are as brilliant and courageous as 
Frederick Douglass, but for other important reasons as well. 

If you grow up in a household where there are books, where 
you are read to, where parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins 
read for their own pleasure, naturally you learn to read. If no one 
close to you takes joy in reading, where is the evidence that it's 
worth the effort? If the quality of education available to you is 
inadequate, if you're taught rote memorization rather than how to 
think, if the content of what you're first given to read comes from 
a nearly alien culture, literacy can be a rocky road. 

You have to internalize, so they're second nature, dozens of 
upper- and lower-case letters, symbols and punctuation marks; 
memorize thousands of dumb spellings on a word-by-word basis; 
and conform to a range of rigid and arbitrary rules of grammar. If 
you're preoccupied by the absence of basic family support or 
dropped into a roiling sea of anger, neglect, exploitation, danger 
and self-hatred, you might well conclude that reading takes too 
much work and just isn't worth the trouble. If you're repeatedly 
given the message that you're too stupid to learn (or, the 
functional equivalent, too cool to learn), and if there's no one 
there to contradict it, you might very well buy this pernicious 
advice. There are always some children - like Frederick Bailey - 
who beat the odds. Too many don't. 

But, beyond all this, there's a particularly insidious way in 
which, if you're poor, you may have another strike against you in 
your effort to read - and even to think. 

Ann Druyan and I come from families that knew grinding 
poverty. But our parents were passionate readers. One of our 
grandmothers learned to read because her father, a subsistence 
farmer, traded a sack of onions to an itinerant teacher. She read 
for the next hundred years. Our parents had personal hygiene and 
the germ theory of disease drummed into them by the New York 
Public Schools. They followed prescriptions on childhood nutri- 
tion recommended by the US Department of Agriculture as if 



they had been handed down from Mount Sinai. Our government 
book on children's health had been repeatedly taped together as 
its pages fell out. The corners were tattered. Key advice was 
underlined. It was consulted in every medical crisis. For a while, 
my parents gave up smoking - one of the few pleasures available 
to them in the Depression years - so that their infant could have 
vitamin and mineral supplements. Ann and I were very lucky. 

Recent research shows that many children without enough to 
eat wind up with diminished capacity to understand and learn 
('cognitive impairment'). Children don't have to be starving for 
this to happen. Even mild undernourishment, the kind most 
common among poor people in America, can do it. This can 
happen before the baby is born (if the mother isn't eating 
enough), in infancy or in childhood. When there isn't enough 
food, the body has to decide how to invest the limited foodstuffs 
available. Survival comes first. Growth comes second. In this 
nutritional triage, the body seems obliged to rank learning last. 
Better to be stupid and alive, it judges, than smart and dead. 

Instead of showing an enthusiasm, a zest for learning as most 
healthy youngsters do, the undernourished child becomes bored, 
apathetic, unresponsive. More severe malnutrition leads to lower 
birth weights and, in its most extreme forms, smaller brains. 
However, even a child who looks perfectly healthy but has not 
enough iron, say, suffers an immediate decline in the ability to 
concentrate. Iron-deficiency anaemia may affect as much as a 
quarter of all low-income children in America; it attacks the 
child's attention span and memory, and may have consequences 
reaching well into adulthood. 

What once was considered relatively mild undernutrition is now 
understood to be potentially associated with lifelong cognitive 
impairment. Children who are undernourished even on a short- 
term basis have a diminished capacity to learn. And millions of 
American children go hungry every week. Lead poisoning, which 
is endemic in inner cities, also causes serious learning deficits. By 
many criteria, the prevalence of poverty in America has been 
steadily increasing since the early 1980s. Almost a quarter of 
American children now live in poverty - the highest rate of 
childhood poverty in the industrialized world. According to one 


The Path to Freedom 

estimate, between 1980 and 1985 alone more American infants 
and children died of preventable disease, malnutrition and other 
consequences of dire poverty than all American battle deaths 
during the Vietnam War. 

Some programmes wisely instituted on the Federal or state level 
in America deal with malnutrition. The Special Supplemental 
Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), school 
breakfast and lunch programmes, the Summer Food Service 
Program - all have been shown to work, although they do not get 
to all the people who need them. So rich a country is well able to 
provide enough food for all its children. 

Some deleterious effects of undernutrition can be undone; 
iron-repletion therapy, for example, can repair some conse- 
quences of iron-deficiency anaemia. But not all of the damage is 
reversible. Dyslexia - various disorders that impair reading skills - 
may affect fifteen per cent of us or more, rich and poor alike. Its 
causes (whether biological, psychological or environmental) are 
often undetermined. But methods now exist to help many with 
dyslexia to learn to read. 

No one should be unable to learn to read because education is 
unavailable. But there are many schools in America in which 
reading is taught as a tedious and reluctant excursion into the 
hieroglyphics of an unknown civilization, and many classrooms in 
which not a single book can be found. Sadly, the demand for adult 
literacy classes far outweighs the supply. High-quality early educa- 
tion programmes such as Head Start can be enormously successful 
in preparing children for reading. But Head Start reaches only a 
third to a quarter of eligible pre-schoolers, many of its pro- 
grammes have been enfeebled by cuts in funding, and it and the 
nutrition programmes mentioned are under renewed Congres- 
sional attack as I write. 

Head Start is criticized in a 1994 book called The Bell Curve by 
Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Their argument has been 
characterized by Gerald Coles of the University of Rochester: 

First, inadequately fund a program for poor children, then 
deny whatever success is achieved in the face of over- 
whelming obstacles, and finally conclude that the program 



must be eliminated because the children are intellectually 

The book, which received surprisingly respectful attention from 
the media, concludes that there is an irreducible hereditary gap 
between blacks and whites - about 10 or 15 points on IQ tests. In a 
review, the psychologist Leon J. Kamin concludes that '[t]he 
authors repeatedly fail to distinguish between correlation and 
causation' - one of the fallacies of our baloney detection kit. 

The National Center for Family Literacy, based in Louisville, 
Kentucky, has been implementing programmes aimed at low- 
income families to teach both children and their parents to read. It 
works like this: the child, 3 to 4 years old, attends school three 
days a week along with a parent, or possibly a grandparent or 
guardian. While the grown-up spends the morning learning basic 
academic skills, the child is in a preschool class. Parent and child 
meet for lunch and then 'learn how to learn together' for the rest 
of the afternoon. 

A follow-up study of fourteen such programmes in three states 
revealed: (1) although all of the children had been designated as 
being at risk for school failure as pre-schoolers, only ten per cent 
were still rated at risk by their current elementary school teachers. 
(2) More than 90 per cent were considered by their current 
elementary school teachers as motivated to learn. (3) Not one of 
the children had to repeat any grade in elementary school. 

The growth of the parents was no less dramatic. When asked to 
describe how their lives had changed as a result of the family 
literacy programme, typical responses described improved self- 
confidence (nearly every participant) and self-control, passing 
high-school equivalency exams, admission to college, new jobs, 
and much better relations with their children. The children are 
described as more attentive to parents, eager to learn and - in 
some cases for the first time - hopeful about the future. Such 
programmes could also be used in later grades for teaching 
mathematics, science and much else. 

Tyrants and autocrats have always understood that literacy, 
learning, books and newspapers are potentially dangerous. They 


The Path to Freedom 

can put independent and even rebellious ideas in the heads of 
their subjects. The British Royal Governor of the Colony of 
Virginia wrote in 1671: 

I thank God there are no free schools nor printing; and I hope 
we shall not have [them] these [next] hundred years; for 
learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into 
the world, and printing has divulged them and libels against 
the best government. God keep us from both! 

But the American colonists, understanding where liberty lies, 
would have none of this. 

In its early years, the United States boasted one of the highest - 
perhaps the highest - literacy rates in the world. (Of course, slaves 
and women didn't count in those days.) As early as 1635, there 
had been public schools in Massachusetts, and by 1647 compul- 
sory education in all townships there of more than fifty 'house- 
holds'. By the next century and a half, educational democracy had 
spread all over the country. Political theorists came from other 
countries to witness this national wonder: vast numbers of ordi- 
nary working people who could read and write. The American 
devotion to education for all propelled discovery and invention, a 
vigorous democratic process, and an upward mobility that 
pumped the nation's economic vitality. 

Today, the United States is not the world leader in literacy. Many 
of those judged literate are unable to read and understand very 
simple material - much less a sixth-grade textbook, an instruction 
manual, a bus schedule, a mortgage statement, or a ballot initiative. 
And the sixth-grade textbooks of today are much less challenging 
than those of a few decades ago, while the literacy requirements at 
the workplace have become more demanding than ever before. 

The gears of poverty, ignorance, hopelessness and low self- 
esteem mesh to create a kind of perpetual failure machine that 
grinds down dreams from generation to generation. We all bear 
the cost of keeping it running. Illiteracy is its linchpin. 

Even if we hardened our hearts to the shame and misery 
experienced by the victims, the cost of illiteracy to everyone else is 



severe - the cost in medical expenses and hospitalization, the cost 
in crime and prisons, the cost in special education, the cost in lost 
productivity and in potentially brilliant minds who could help 
solve the dilemmas besetting us. 

Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery 
to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of 
freedom. But reading is still the path. 

Frederick Douglass After the Escape 

When he was barely twenty, he ran away to freedom. 
Settling in New Bedford with his bride, Anna Murray, 
he worked as a common labourer. Four years later Douglass 
was invited to address a meeting. By that time, in the North, 
it was not unusual to hear the great orators of the day - the 
white ones, that is - railing against slavery. But even many of 
those opposed to slavery thought of the slaves themselves as 
somehow less than human. On the night of 16 August 1841, 
on the small island of Nantucket, the members of the mostly 
Quaker Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society leaned forward 
in their chairs to hear something new: a voice raised in 
opposition to slavery by someone who knew it from bitter 
personal experience. 

His very appearance and demeanour destroyed the then- 
prevalent myth of the 'natural servility' of African- Americans. 
By all accounts his eloquent analysis of the evils of slavery was 
one of the most brilliant debuts in American oratorical history. 
William Lloyd Garrison, the leading abolitionist of the day, sat 
in the front row. When Douglass finished his speech, Garrison 
rose, turned to the stunned audience, and challenged them with 
a shouted question: 'Have we been listening to a thing, a chattel 
personal, or a man?' 

A man! A man!' the audience roared back as one voice. 


The Path to Freedom 

'Shall such a man be held a slave in a Christian land?' called 
out Garrison. 

'No! No!' shouted the audience. 

And even louder, Garrison asked: 'Shall such a man ever be 
sent back to bondage from the free soil of Old Massachusetts?' 

And now the crowd was on its feet, crying out 'No! No! No!' 

He never did return to slavery. Instead, as an author, editor 
and publisher of journals, as a speaker in America and abroad, 
and as the first African-American to occupy a high advisory 
position in the US government, he spent the rest of his life 
fighting for human rights. During the Civil War, he was a 
consultant to President Lincoln. Douglass successfully advo- 
cated the arming of ex-slaves to fight for the North, Federal 
retaliation against Confederate prisoners-of-war for Confeder- 
ate summary execution of captured African-American soldiers, 
and freedom for the slaves as a principal objective of the war. 

Many of his opinions were scathing, and ill-designed to win 
him friends in high places: 

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the 
South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a 
justifier of the most appalling barbarity, a sanctifier of 
the most hateful frauds, and a dark shelter under 
which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal 
deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection. 
Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, 
next to that enslavement, I should regard being the 
slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that 
could befall me . . . I . . . hate the corrupt, slavehold- 
ing, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and 
hypocritical Christianity of this land. 

Compared to some of the religiously inspired racist rhetoric of 
that time and later, Douglass's comments do not seem hyper- 
bolic. 'Slavery is of God' they used to say in antebellum times. 
As one of many loathsome post-Civil War examples, Charles 
Carroll's The Negro a Beast (American Book and Bible House) 
taught its pious readers that 'the Bible and Divine Revelation, 



as well as reason, all teach that the Negro is not human'. In 
more modern times, some racists still reject the plain testimony 
written in the DNA that all the races are not only human but 
nearly indistinguishable with appeals to the Bible as an 'impreg- 
nable bulwark' against even examining the evidence. 

It is worth noting, though, that much of the abolitionist 
ferment arose out of Christian, especially Quaker, communi- 
ties of the North; that the traditional black Southern Chris- 
tian churches played a key role in the historic American civil 
rights struggle of the 1960s; and that many of its leaders - 
most notably Martin Luther King, Jr. - were ministers 
ordained in those churches. 

Douglass addressed the white community in these words: 

[Slavery] fetters your progress, it is the enemy of 
improvement; the deadly foe of education; it fosters 
pride; it breeds indolence; it promotes vice; it shelters 
crime; it is a curse of the earth that supports it, and yet 
you cling to it as if it were the sheet anchor of all your 

In 1843, on a speaking tour of Ireland shortly before the potato 
famine, he was moved by the dire poverty there to write home 
to Garrison: T see much here to remind me of my former 
condition, and I confess I should be ashamed to lift my voice 
against American slavery, but that I know the cause of human- 
ity is one the world over.' He was outspoken in opposition to the 
policy of extermination of the Native Americans. And in 1848, 
at the Seneca Falls Convention, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton* 
had the nerve to call for an effort to secure the vote for women, 
he was the only man of any ethnic group to stand in support. 

On the night of 20 February 1895 - more than thirty years 
after Emancipation - following an appearance at a women's 
rights rally with Susan B. Anthony, he collapsed and died, a 
true American hero. 

* Years later, she wrote of the Bible in words reminiscent of Douglass's: 'I know 
of no other books that so fully teach the subjection and degradation of women.' 



Significance Junkies 

We also know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder 
whether delusion is not more consoling. 

Henri Poincare (1854-1912) 

I hope no one will consider me unduly cynical if I assert that a 
good first-order model of how commercial and public television 
programming work is simply this: money is everything. In prime 
time, a single rating point difference is worth millions of dollars in 
advertising. Especially since the early 1980s, television has 
become almost entirely profit-motivated. You can see this, say, in 
the decline of network news and news specials, or in the pathetic 
evasions that the major networks offered to circumvent a Federal 
Communications Commission mandate that they improve the 
level of children's programming. (For example, educational vir- 
tues were asserted for a cartoon series that systematically misrep- 
resents the technology and lifestyles of our Pleistocene ancestors, 
and that portrays dinosaurs as pets.) As I write, public television 
in America is in real danger of losing government support, and the 
content of commercial programming is in the course of a steep, 
long-term dumbing down. 

In this perspective, fighting for more real science on television 
seems naive and forlorn. But owners of networks and television 
producers have children and grandchildren about whose future 
they rightly worry. They must feel some responsibility for the 



future of their nation. There is evidence that science programming 
can be successful, and that people hunger for more of it. I remain 
hopeful that sooner or later we'll see real science skilfully and 
appealingly presented as regular fare on major network television 

Baseball and soccer have Aztec antecedents. Football is a thinly 
disguised re-enactment of hunting; we played it before we were 
human. Lacrosse is an ancient Native American game, and 
hockey is related to it. But basketball is new. We've been making 
movies longer than we've been playing basketball. 

At first, they didn't think to make a hole in the peach basket so 
the ball could be retrieved without climbing a flight of stairs. But 
in the brief time since then, the game has evolved. In the hands 
mainly of African-American players, basketball has become - at 
its best - the paramount synthesis in sport of intelligence, preci- 
sion, courage, audacity, anticipation, artifice, teamwork, elegance 
and grace. 

Five-foot-three-inch Muggsy Bogues negotiates a forest of 
giants: Michael Jordan sails in from some outer darkness 
beyond the free-throw line; Larry Bird threads a precise, 
no-look pass; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unleashes a skyhook. This 
is not fundamentally a contact sport like football. It's a game of 
finesse. The full-court press, passes out of the double-team, the 
pick-and-roll, cutting off the passing lanes, a tip-in from a 
high-flying forward soaring from out of nowhere all constitute a 
coordination of intellect and athleticism, a harmony of mind 
and body. It's not surprising that the game has caught fire in 

Ever since National Basketball Association games became a 
television staple, it's seemed to me that it could be used to teach 
science and mathematics. To appreciate a free-throw average of 
0.926, you must know something about converting fractions into 
decimals. A lay-up is Newton's first law of motion in action. Every 
shot represents the launching of a basketball on a parabolic arc, a 
curve determined by the same gravitational physics that specifies 
the flight of a ballistic missile, or the Earth orbiting the Sun, or a 
spacecraft on its rendezvous with some distant world. The centre 

Significance Junkies 

of mass of the player's body during a slam dunk is briefly in orbit 
about the centre of the Earth. 

To get the ball in the basket, you must loft it at exactly the right 
speed; a one per cent error and gravity will make you look bad. 
Three-point shooters, whether they know it or not, compensate 
for aerodynamic drag. Each successive bounce of a dropped 
basketball is nearer to the ground because of the Second Law of 
Thermodynamics. Daryl Dawkins or Shaquille O'Neal shattering 
a backboard is an opportunity for teaching - among some other 
things - the propagation of shock waves. A spin shot off the glass 
from under the backboard goes in because of the conservation of 
angular momentum. It's an infraction of the rules to touch the 
basketball in 'the cylinder' above the basket; we're now talking 
about a key mathematical idea: generating n-dimensional objects 
by moving (n - 1) -dimensional objects. 

In the classroom, in newspapers and on television, why aren't 
we using sports to teach science? 

When I was growing up, my father would bring home a daily 
paper and consume (often with great gusto) the baseball box 
scores. There they were, to me dry as dust, with obscure abbrevia- 
tions (W, SS, K, W-L, AB, RBI), but they spoke to him. 
Newspapers everywhere printed them. I figured maybe they 
weren't too hard for me. Eventually I too got caught up in the 
world of baseball statistics. (I know it helped me in learning 
decimals, and I still cringe a little when I hear, usually at the very 
beginning of the baseball season, that someone's 'batting a 
thousand'. But 1.000 is not 1,000. The lucky player is batting one.) 

Or take a look at the financial pages. Any introductory mate- 
rial? Explanatory footnotes? Definitions of abbreviations? 
Almost none. It's sink or swim. Look at those acres of statistics! 
Yet people voluntarily read the stuff. It's not beyond their ability. 
It's only a matter of motivation. Why can't we do the same with 
maths, science and technology? 

In every sport the players seem to perform in streaks. In basket- 
ball it's called the hot hand. You can do no wrong. I remember a 
play-off game in which Michael Jordan, not ordinarily a superb 
long-range shooter, was effortlessly making so many consecutive 



three-point baskets from all over the floor that he shrugged his 
shoulders in amazement at himself. In contrast, there are times 
when you're cold, when nothing goes in. When a player is in the 
groove he seems to be tapping into some mysterious power, and 
when ice-cold he's under some kind of jinx or spell. But this is 
magical, not scientific thinking. 

Streakiness, far from being remarkable, is expected, even for 
random events. What would be amazing would be no streaks. If I 
flip a penny ten times in a row, I might get this sequence of heads 
and tails: HHHTHTHHHH. Eight heads out often, and four 
in a row! Was I exercising some psychokinetic control over my 
penny? Was I in a heads groove? It looks much too regular to be 
due to chance. 

But then I remember that I was flipping before and after I got 
this run of heads, that it's embedded in a much longer and less 
interesting sequence: HHTHTTHHHTHTHHHHTHT 
T H T H T T. If I'm permitted to pay attention to some results and 
ignore others, I'll always be able to 'prove' there's something 
exceptional about my streak. This is one of the fallacies in the 
baloney detection kit, the enumeration of favourable circum- 
stances. We remember the hits and forget the misses. If your 
ordinary field goal shooting percentage is 50 per cent and you 
can't improve your statistics by an effort of will, you're exactly as 
likely to have a hot hand in basketball as I am in coin-flipping. As 
often as I get eight out of ten heads, you'll get eight out of ten 
baskets. Basketball can teach something about probability and 
statistics, as well as critical thinking. 

An investigation by my colleague Tom Gilovich, professor of 
psychology at Cornell, shows persuasively that our ordinary 
understanding of the basketball streak is a misperception. 
Gilovich studied whether shots made by NBA players tend to 
cluster more than you'd expect by chance. After making one or 
two or three baskets, players were no more likely to succeed than 
after a missed basket. This was true for the great and the 
near-great, not only for field goals but for free throws - where 
there's no hand in your face. (Of course some attenuation of 
shooting streaks can be attributed to increased attention by the 
defence to the player with the 'hot hand'.) In baseball, there's the 


Significance Junkies 

related but contrary myth that someone batting below his average 
is 'due' to make a hit. This is no more true than that a few heads in 
a row makes the chance of flipping tails next time anything other 
than 50 per cent. If there are streaks beyond what you'd expect 
statistically, they're hard to find. 

But somehow this doesn't satisfy. It doesn't feel true. Ask the 
players, or the coaches, or the fans. We seek meaning, even in 
random numbers. We're significance junkies. When the cel- 
ebrated coach Red Auerbach heard of Gilovich's study, his 
response was: 'Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn't 
care less.' And you know exactly how he feels. But if basketball 
streaks don't show up more often than sequences of heads or tails, 
there's nothing magical about them. Does this reduce players to 
mere marionettes, manipulated by the laws of chance? Certainly 
not. Their average shooting percentages are a true reflection of 
their personal skills. This is only about the frequency and duration 
of streaks. 

Of course, it's much more fun to think that the gods have 
touched the player who's on a streak and scorned the one with a 
cold hand. So what? What's the harm of a little mystification? It 
sure beats boring statistical analyses. In basketball, in sports, no 
harm. But as a habitual way of thinking, it gets us into trouble in 
some of the other games we like to play. 

'Scientist, yes; mad, no' giggles the mad scientist on 'Gilligan's 
Island' as he adjusts the electronic device that permits him to 
control the minds of others for his own nefarious purpose. 

'I'm sorry, Dr Nerdnik, the people of Earth will not appreciate 
being shrunk to three inches high, even if it will save room and 
energy . . .' The cartoon superhero is patiently explaining an 
ethical dilemma to the typical scientist portrayed on Saturday- 
morning children's television. 

Many of these so-called scientists - judging from the pro- 
grammes I've seen (and plausible inference about ones I 
haven't, such as the Mad Scientist's 'Toon Club) - are moral 
cripples driven by a lust for power or endowed with a spectacu- 
lar insensitivity to the feelings of others. The message conveyed 
to the moppet audience is that science is dangerous and 



scientists worse than weird: they're crazed. 

The applications of science, of course, can be dangerous, and, 
as I've tried to stress, virtually every major technological advance 
in the history of the human species - back to the invention of stone 
tools and the domestication of fire - has been ethically ambiguous. 
These advances can be used by ignorant or evil people for 
dangerous purposes or by wise and good people for the benefit of 
the human species. But only one side of the ambiguity ever seems 
to be presented in these offerings to our children. 

Where in these programmes are the joys of science? The 
delights in discovering how the universe is put together? The 
exhilaration in knowing a deep thing well? What about the crucial 
contributions that science and technology have made to human 
welfare, or the billions of lives saved or made possible by medical 
and agricultural technology? (In fairness, though, I should men- 
tion that the Professor in 'Gilligan's Island' often used his knowledge 
of science to solve practical problems for the castaways.) 

We live in a complex age where many of the problems we face 
can, whatever their origins, only have solutions that involve a 
deep understanding of science and technology. Modern society 
desperately needs the finest minds available to devise solutions to 
these problems. I do not think that many gifted youngsters will be 
encouraged towards a career in science or engineering by watch- 
ing Saturday-morning television - or much of the rest of the 
available American video menu. 

Over the years, a profusion of credulous, uncritical TV series 
and 'specials' - on ESP, channelling, the Bermuda Triangle, 
UFOs, ancient astronauts, Big Foot, and the like - have been 
spawned. The style-setting series 'In Search of . . .' begins with a 
disclaimer disavowing any responsibility to present a balanced 
view of the subject. You can see a thirst for wonder here 
untempered by even rudimentary scientific scepticism. Pretty 
much whatever anyone says on camera is true. The idea that there 
might be alternative explanations to be decided among by the 
weight of evidence never surfaces. The same is true of 'Sightings' 
and 'Unsolved Mysteries' - in which, as the very title suggests, 
prosaic solutions are unwelcome - and innumerable other clones. 

'In Search of . . .' frequently takes an intrinsically interesting 


Significance Junkies 

subject and systematically distorts the evidence. If there is a 
mundane scientific explanation and one which requires the most 
extravagant paranormal or psychic explanation, you can be sure 
which will be highlighted. An almost random example: an author 
is presented who argues that a major planet lies beyond Pluto. His 
evidence is cylinder seals from ancient Sumer, carved long before 
the invention of the telescope. His views are increasingly accepted 
by professional astronomers, he says. Not a word is mentioned of 
the failure of astronomers - studying the motions of Neptune, 
Pluto and the four spacecraft beyond - to find a trace of the 
alleged planet. 

The graphics are indiscriminate. When an offscreen narrator is 
talking about dinosaurs, we see a woolly mammoth. The narrator 
describes a hovercraft; the screen shows a shuttle liftoff. We hear 
about lakes and flood plains, but are shown mountains. It doesn't 
matter. The visuals are as indifferent to the facts as is the voice-over. 

A series called 'The X Files', which pays lip-service to sceptical 
examination of the paranormal, is skewed heavily towards the 
reality of alien abductions, strange powers and government com- 
plicity in covering up just about everything interesting. Almost 
never does the paranormal claim turn out to be a hoax or a 
psychological aberration or a misunderstanding of the natural 
world. Much closer to reality, as well as a much greater public 
service, would be an adult series ('Scooby Doo' does it for children) 
in which paranormal claims are systematically investigated and 
every case is found to be explicable in prosaic terms. The dramatic 
tension would be in uncovering how misapprehension and hoax 
could generate apparently genuine paranormal phenomena. Per- 
haps one of the investigators would always be disappointed, hoping 
that next time an unambiguously paranormal case will survive 
sceptical scrutiny. 

Other shortcomings are evident in television science fiction 
programming. 'Star Trek', for example, despite its charm and 
strong international and interspecies perspective, often ignores 
the most elementary scientific facts. The idea that Mr Spock could 
be a cross between a human being and a life form independently 
evolved on the planet Vulcan is genetically far less probable than a 
successful cross of a man and an artichoke. The idea does, 



however, provide a precedent in popular culture for the 
extraterrestrial/human hybrids that later became so central a 
component of the alien abduction story. There must be dozens of 
alien species on the various 'Star Trek' TV series and movies. 
Almost all we spend any time with are minor variants of humans. 
This is driven by economic necessity, costing only an actor and a 
latex mask, but it flies in the face of the stochastic nature of the 
evolutionary process. If there are aliens, almost all of them I think 
will look devastatingly less human than Klingons and Romulans 
(and be at widely different levels of technology). 'Star Trek' 
doesn't come to grips with evolution. 

In many TV programmes and films, even the casual science - 
the throwaway lines that are not essential to a plot already 
innocent of science - is done incompetently. It costs very little to 
hire a graduate student to read the script for scientific accuracy. 
But, so far as I can tell, this is almost never done. As a result we 
have such howlers as 'parsec' mentioned as a unit of speed instead 
of distance in the - in many other ways exemplary - film Star 
Wars. If such things were done with a modicum of care, they 
might even improve the plot; certainly, they might help convey a 
little science to a mass audience. 

There's a great deal of pseudoscience for the gullible on TV, 
a fair amount of medicine and technology, but hardly any 
science, especially on the big commercial networks, whose 
executives tend to think that science programming means 
ratings declines and lost profits, and nothing else matters. 
There are network employees with the title 'Science Corre- 
spondent', and an occasional news feature said to be devoted to 
science. But we almost never hear any science from them, just 
medicine and technology. In all the networks, I doubt if there's 
a single employee whose job it is to read each week's issue of 
Nature or Science to see if anything newsworthy has been 
discovered. When the Nobel Prizes in science are announced 
each fall, there's a superb news 'hook' for science: a chance to 
explain what the prizes were given for. But, almost always, all 
we hear is something like '. . . may one day lead to a cure for 
cancer. Today in Belgrade . . .' 

How much science is there on the radio or television talk shows, 


Significance Junkies 

or on those dreary Sunday morning programmes in which middle- 
aged white people sit around agreeing with each other? When is 
the last time you heard an intelligent comment on science by a 
President of the United States? Why in all America is there no TV 
drama that has as its hero someone devoted to figuring out how 
the Universe works? When a highly publicized murder trial has 
everyone casually mentioning DNA testing, where are the prime- 
time network specials devoted to nucleic acids and heredity? I 
can't even recall seeing an accurate and comprehensible descrip- 
tion on television of how television works. 

By far the most effective means of raising interest in science is 
television. But this enormously powerful medium is doing close to 
nothing to convey the joys and methods of science, while its 'mad 
scientist' engine continues to huff and puff away. 

In American polls in the early 1990s, two-thirds of all adults had 
no idea what the 'information superhighway' was; 42 per cent 
didn't know where Japan is; and 38 per cent were ignorant of the 
term 'holocaust'. But the proportion was in the high 90s who had 
heard of the Menendez, Bobbit and O.J. Simpson criminal cases; 
99 per cent had heard that the singer Michael Jackson had 
allegedly sexually molested a boy. The United States may be the 
best-entertained nation on Earth, but a steep price is being paid. 

Surveys in Canada and the United States in the same period 
show that television viewers wish there were more science pro- 
gramming. In North America, often there's a good science 
programme in the 'Nova' series of the Public Broadcasting 
System, and occasionally on the Discovery or Learning Channels, 
or the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Bill Nye's 'The Science 
Guy' programmes for young children on PBS are fast-paced, 
feature arresting graphics, range over many realms of science, and 
sometimes even illuminate the process of discovery. But the depth 
of public interest in science engrossingly and accurately presented 
- to say nothing of the immense good that would result from 
better public understanding of science - is not yet reflected in 
network programming. 

How could we put more science on television? Here are some 



• The wonders and methods of science routinely presented on 
news and talk programmes. There's real human drama in the 
process of discovery. 

• A series called 'Solved Mysteries', in which tremulous specula- 
tions have rational resolutions, including puzzling cases in 
forensic medicine and epidemiology. 

• 'Ring My Bells Again' - a series in which we relive the media 
and the public falling hook, line and sinker for a coordinated 
government lie. The first two episodes might be the Bay of 
Tonkin 'incident' and the systematic irradiation of unsuspecting 
and unprotected American civilians and military personnel in 
the alleged requirements of 'national defence' following 1945. 

• A separate series on fundamental misunderstandings and mis- 
takes made by famous scientists, national leaders and religious 

• Regular exposes of pernicious pseudoscience, and audience- 
participation 'how-to' programmes: how to bend spoons, read 
minds, appear to foretell the future, perform psychic surgery, 
do cold reads, and press the TV viewers' personal buttons. 
How we're bamboozled: learn by doing. 

• A state-of-the-art computer graphics facility to prepare in advance 
scientific visuals for a wide range of news contingencies. 

• A set of inexpensive televised debates, each perhaps an hour 
long, with a computer graphics budget for each side provided 
by the producers, rigorous standards of evidence required by 
the moderator, and the widest range of topics broached. They 
could address issues where the scientific evidence is over- 
whelming, as on the matter of the shape of the Earth; contro- 
versial matters where the answer is less clear, such as the 
survival of one's personality after death, or abortion, or animal 
rights, or genetic engineering; or any of the presumptive 
pseudosciences mentioned in this book. 

There is a pressing national need for more public knowledge of 
science. Television cannot provide it all by itself. But if we want to 
make short-term improvements in the understanding of science, 
television is the place to start. 



Maxwell and The Nerds 

Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity? 

Ronald Reagan, 
campaign speech, 1980 

There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage 
than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is 
in every country the surest basis of public happiness. 

George Washington, 
address to Congress, 8 January 1790 

Stereotypes abound. Ethnic groups are stereotyped, the citizens 
of other nations and religions are stereotyped, the genders and 
sexual preferences are stereotyped, people born in various times 
of the year are stereotyped (Sun-sign astrology), and occupations 
are stereotyped. The most generous interpretation ascribes it to a 
kind of intellectual laziness: instead of judging people on their 
individual merits and deficits, we concentrate on one or two bits of 
information about them, and then place them in a small number of 
previously constructed pigeonholes. 

This saves the trouble of thinking, at the price in many cases of 
committing a profound injustice. It also shields the stereotyper 
from contact with the enormous variety of people, the multiplicity 
of ways of being human. Even if stereotyping were valid on 
average, it is bound to fail in many individual cases: human 



variation runs to bell-type curves. There's an average value of any 
quality, and smaller numbers of people running off in both 

Some stereotyping is the result of not controlling the variables, 
of forgetting what other factors might be in play. For example, it 
used to be that there were almost no women in science. Many 
male scientists were vehement: this proved that women lacked the 
ability to do science. Temperamentally, it didn't fit them, it was 
too difficult, it required a kind of intelligence that women don't 
have, they're too emotional to be objective, can you think of any 
great women theoretical physicists? . . . and so on. Since then the 
barriers have come tumbling down. Today women populate most 
of the subdisciplines of science. In my own fields of astronomy and 
planetary studies, women have recently burst upon the scene, 
making discovery after discovery, and providing a desperately 
needed breath of fresh air. 

So what data were they missing, all those famous male scientists 
of the 1950s and 1960s and earlier who had pronounced so 
authoritatively on the intellectual deficiencies of women? Plainly, 
society was preventing women from entering science, and then 
criticizing them for it, confusing cause and effect: 

You want to be an astronomer, young woman? Sorry. 

Why can't you? Because you're unsuited. 

How do we know you're unsuited? Because women have never 
been astronomers. 

Put so baldly, the case sounds absurd. But the contrivances of 
bias can be subtle. The despised group is rejected by spurious 
arguments, sometimes done with such confidence and contempt 
that many of us, including some of the victims themselves, fail to 
recognize it as self-serving sleight of hand. 

Casual observers of meetings of sceptics, and those who glance 
at the list of CSICOP Fellows, have noted a great preponderance 
of men. Others claim disproportionate numbers of women among 
believers in astrology (horoscopes in most 'women's' but few 
'men's' magazines), crystals, ESP and the like. Some commenta- 
tors suggest that there is something peculiarly male about scepti- 
cism. It's hard-driving, competitive, confrontational, tough- 
minded - whereas women, they say, are more accepting, 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

consensus-building, and uninterested in challenging conventional 
wisdom. But in my experience women scientists have just as finely 
honed sceptical senses as their male counterparts; that's just part 
of being a scientist. This criticism, if that's what it is, is presented 
to the world in the usual ragged disguise: if you discourage women 
from being sceptical and don't train them in scepticism, then sure 
enough you may find that many women aren't sceptical. Open the 
doors and let them in, and they're as sceptical as anybody else. 

One of the stereotyped occupations is science. Scientists are 
nerds, socially inept, working on incomprehensible subjects that 
no normal person would find in any way interesting - even if he 
were willing to invest the time required, which, again, no sensible 
person would. 'Get a life,' you might want to tell them. 

I asked for a fleshed-out contemporary characterization of 
science-nerds from an expert on eleven-year-olds of my acquaint- 
ance. I should stress that she is merely reporting, not necessarily 
endorsing, the conventional prejudices: 

Nerds wear their belts just under their rib cages. Their short-sleeve 
shirts are equipped with pocket protectors in which is displayed a 
formidable array of multicoloured pens and pencils. A programma- 
ble calculator is carried in a special belt holster. They all wear thick 
glasses with broken nose-pieces that have been repaired with Band- 
Aids. They are bereft of social skills, and oblivious or indifferent to 
the lack. When they laugh, what comes out is a snort. They jabber at 
each other in an incomprehensible language. They'll jump at the 
opportunity to work for extra credit in all classes except gym. They 
look down on normal people, who in turn laugh at them. Most nerds 
have names like Norman. (The Norman Conquest involved a horde 
of high-belted, pocket-protected, calculator- carrying nerds with bro- 
ken glasses invading England.) There are more boy nerds than girl 
nerds, but there are plenty of both. Nerds don't date. If you're a nerd 
you can't be cool. Also vice versa. 

This of course is a stereotype. There are scientists who dress 
elegantly, who are devastatingly cool, who many people long to date, 
who do not carry concealed calculators to social events. Some you'd 
never guess were scientists if you invited them to your home. 

But other scientists do match the stereotype, more or less. 
They're pretty socially inept. There may be, proportionately, 



many more nerds among scientists than among backhoe operators 
or fashion designers or traffic wardens. Perhaps scientists are 
more nerdish than bartenders or surgeons or short-order cooks. 
Why should this be? Maybe people untalented in getting along 
with others find a refuge in impersonal pursuits, particularly 
mathematics and the physical sciences. Maybe the serious study of 
difficult subjects requires so much time and dedication that very 
little is left over for learning more than the barest social niceties. 
Maybe it's a combination of both. 

Like the mad-scientist image to which it's closely related, the 
nerd-scientist stereotype is pervasive in our society. What's wrong 
with a little good-natured fun at the expense of scientists? If, for 
whatever reason, people dislike the stereotypical scientist, they are 
less likely to support science. Why subsidize geeks to pursue their 
absurd and incomprehensible little projects? Well, we know the 
answer to that: science is supported because it provides spectacular 
benefits at all levels in society, as I have argued earlier in this book. 
So those who find nerds distasteful, but at the same time crave the 
products of science, face a kind of dilemma. A tempting resolution is 
to direct the activities of the scientists. Don't give them money to go 
off in weird directions; instead tell them what we need - this 
invention, or that process. Subsidize not the curiosity of the nerds, 
but what will benefit society. It seems simple enough. 

The trouble is that ordering someone to go out and make a specific 
invention, even if price is no object, hardly guarantees that it gets 
done. There may be an underpinning of knowledge that's unavail- 
able, without which no one will ever build the contrivance you have 
in mind. And the history of science shows that often you can't go 
after the underpinnings in a directed way, either. They may emerge 
out of the idle musings of some lonely young person off in the 
boondocks. They're ignored or rejected even by other scientists, 
sometimes until a new generation of scientists comes along. Urging 
major practical inventions while discouraging curiosity-driven 
research would be spectacularly counterproductive. 

Suppose you are, by the Grace of God, Victoria, Queen of the 
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and Defender of 
the Faith in the most prosperous and triumphant age of the British 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

Empire. Your dominions stretch across the planet. Maps of the 
world are abundantly splashed with British pink. You preside over 
the world's leading technological power. The steam engine is 
perfected in Great Britain, largely by Scottish engineers, who 
provide technical expertise on the railways and steamships that 
bind up the Empire. 

Suppose in the year 1860 you have a visionary idea, so daring it 
would have been rejected by Jules Verne's publisher. You want a 
machine that will carry your voice, as well as moving pictures of 
the glory of the Empire, into every home in the kingdom. What's 
more, the sounds and pictures must come not through conduits or 
wires, but somehow out of the air, so people at work and in the 
field can receive instantaneous inspirational offerings designed to 
insure loyalty and the work ethic. The Word of God could also be 
conveyed by the same contrivance. Other socially desirable appli- 
cations would doubtless be found. 

So with the Prime Minister's support, you convene the Cabinet, 
the Imperial General Staff, and the leading scientists and engi- 
neers of the Empire. You will allocate a million pounds, you tell 
them - big money in 1860. If they need more, just ask. You don't 
care how they do it; just get it done. Oh, yes, it's to be called the 
Westminster Project. 

Probably there would be some useful inventions emerging out 
of such an endeavour - 'spin-off. There always are when you 
spend huge amounts of money on technology. But the Westmin- 
ster Project would almost certainly fail. Why? Because the 
underlying science hadn't been done. By 1860 the telegraph was in 
existence. You could imagine at great expense telegraphy sets in 
every home, with people ditting and dahing messages out in 
Morse code. But that's not what the Queen asked for. She had 
radio and television in mind but they were far out of reach. 

In the real world, the physics necessary to invent radio and 
television would come from a direction that no one could have 

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1831. 
At age two he found that he could use a tin plate to bounce an 
image of the Sun off the furniture and make it dance against the 
walls. As his parents came running he cried out, 'It's the Sun! I got 



it with the tin plate!' In his boyhood, he was fascinated by bugs, 
grubs, rocks, flowers, lenses, machines. 'It was humiliating,' later 
recalled his Aunt Jane, 'to be asked so many questions one 
couldn't answer by a child like that.' 

Naturally, by the time he got to school he was called 'Dafty' - 
not quite right in the head. He was an exceptionally handsome 
young man, but he dressed carelessly, for comfort rather than 
style, and his Scottish provincialisms in speech and conduct were a 
cause for derision, especially by the time he reached college. And 
he had peculiar interests. 

Maxwell was a nerd. He fared little better with his teachers than 
with his fellow students. Here's a poignant couplet he wrote at the 

Ye years roll on, and haste the expected time 
When flogging boys shall be accounted crime. 

Many years later, in 1872, in his inaugural lecture as professor of 
experimental physics at Cambridge University, he alluded to the 
nerdish stereotype: 

It is not so long ago since any man who devoted himself to 
geometry, or to any science requiring continued application, 
was looked upon as necessarily a misanthrope, who must 
have abandoned all human interests, and betaken himself to 
abstractions so far removed from all the world of life and 
action that he has become insensible alike to the attractions 
of pleasure and to the claims of duty. 

I suspect that 'not so long ago' was Maxwell's way of recalling the 
experiences of his youth. He then went on to say, 

In the present day, men of science are not looked upon with 
the same awe or with the same suspicion. They are supposed 
to be in league with the material spirit of the age, and to form 
a kind of advanced Radical party among men of learning. 

We no longer live in a time of untrammelled optimism about the 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

benefits of science and technology. We understand that there is a 
downside. Circumstances today are much closer to what Maxwell 
remembered from his childhood. 

He made enormous contributions to astronomy and physics - 
from the conclusive demonstration that the rings of Saturn are 
composed of small particles, to the elastic properties of solids, 
to the disciplines now called the kinetic theory of gases and 
statistical mechanics. It was he who first showed that an 
enormous number of tiny molecules, moving on their own and 
incessantly colliding with each other and bouncing elastically, 
leads not to confusion, but to precise statistical laws. The 
properties of such a gas can be predicted and understood. (The 
bell-shaped curve that describes the speeds of molecules in a 
gas is now called the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution.) He 
invented a mythical being, now 'Maxwell's demon', whose 
actions generated a paradox that took modern information 
theory and quantum mechanics to resolve. 

The nature of light had been a mystery since antiquity. There 
were acrimonious learned debates on whether it was a particle 
or a wave. Popular definitions ran to the style, 'Light is 
darkness - lit up'. Maxwell's greatest contribution was his 
discovery that electricity and magnetism, of all things, join 
together to become light. The now conventional understanding 
of the electromagnetic spectrum - running in wavelength from 
gamma rays to X-rays to ultraviolet light to visible light to 
infrared light to radio waves - is due to Maxwell. So is radio, 
television and radar. 

But Maxwell wasn't after any of this. He was interested in how 
electricity makes magnetism and vice versa. I want to describe 
what Maxwell did, but his historic accomplishment is highly 
mathematical. In a few pages, I can at best give you only a flavour. 
If you do not fully understand what I'm about to say, please bear 
with me. There's no way we can get a feeling for what Maxwell did 
without looking at a little mathematics. 

Mesmer, the inventor of 'mesmerism', believed he had 
discovered a magnetic fluid, 'almost the same thing as the 
electric fluid', that permeated all things. On this matter as well, 
he was mistaken. We now know that there is no special 



magnetic fluid, and that all magnetism - including the power 
that resides in a bar or horseshoe magnet - is due to moving 
electricity. The Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted had 
performed a little experiment in which electricity was made to 
flow down a wire and induce a nearby compass needle to waver 
and tremble. The wire and the compass were not in physical 
contact. The great English physicist Michael Faraday had done 
the complementary experiment: he made a magnetic force turn 
on and off and thereby generated a current of electricity in a 
nearby wire. Time-varying electricity had somehow reached out 
and generated magnetism, and time-varying magnetism had 
somehow reached out and generated electricity. This was called 
'induction' and was deeply mysterious, close to magic. 

Faraday proposed that the magnet had an invisible 'field' of 
force that extended into surrounding space, stronger close to the 
magnet, weaker farther away. You could track the form of the 
field by placing tiny iron filings on a piece of paper and waving a 
magnet underneath. Likewise, your hair after a good combing on 
a low-humidity day generates an electric field which invisibly 
extends out from your head, and which can even make small 
pieces of paper move by themselves. 

The electricity in a wire, we now know, is caused by 
submicroscopic electrical particles, called electrons, which 
respond to an electric field and move. The wires are made of 
materials like copper which have lots of free electrons - 
electrons not bound within atoms, but able to move. Unlike 
copper, though, most materials, say, wood, are not good 
conductors; they are instead insulators or 'dielectrics'. In them, 
comparatively few electrons are available to move in response 
to the impressed electric or magnetic field. Not much of a 
current is produced. Of course there's some movement or 
'displacement' of electrons, and the bigger the electric field, the 
more displacement occurs. 

Maxwell devised a way of writing what was known about 
electricity and magnetism in his time, a method of summarizing 
precisely all those experiments with wires and currents and 
magnets. Here they are, the four Maxwell equations for the 
behaviour of electricity and magnetism in matter: 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

V • E = p/eo 
V B = 0 

V x E = -B 

V x B = ji, j + ^eoE 

It takes a few years of university-level physics to understand these 
equations. They are written using a branch of mathematics called 
vector calculus. A vector, written in bold-face type, is any 
quantity with both a magnitude and a direction. Sixty miles an 
hour isn't a vector, but sixty miles an hour due north on Highway 
1 is. E and B represent the electric and magnetic fields. The 
triangle, called a nabla (because of its resemblance to a certain 
ancient Middle Eastern harp), expresses how the electric or 
magnetic fields vary in three-dimensional space. The 'dot product' 
and the 'cross product' after the nablas are statements of two 
different kinds of spatial variation. 

E and B represent the time variation, the rate of change of the 
electric and magnetic fields, j stands for the electrical current. The 
lower-case Greek letter p (rho) represents the density of electrical 
charges, while s„ (pronounced 'epsilon zero') and |i„ (pronounced 
'mu zero') are not variables, but properties of the substance E and 
B are measured in, and determined by experiment. In a vacuum, 
e„ and (x„ are constants of nature. 

Considering how many different quantities are being brought 
together in these equations, it's striking how simple they are. They 
could have gone on for pages, but they don't. 

The first of the four Maxwell equations tells how an electric 
field due to electrical charges (electrons, for example) varies with 
distance (it gets weaker the farther away we go). But the greater 
the charge density (the more electrons, say, in a given space), the 
stronger the field. 

The second equation tells us that there's no comparable state- 
ment in magnetism, because Mesmer's magnetic 'charges' (or 
magnetic 'monopoles') do not exist: saw a magnet in half and you 
won't be holding an isolated 'north' pole and an isolated 'south' 
pole; each piece now has its own 'north' and 'south' pole. 

The third equation tells us how a changing magnetic field 
induces an electric field. 



The fourth describes the converse - how a changing electric 
field (or an electrical current) induces a magnetic field. 

The four equations are essentially distillations of generations of 
laboratory experiments, mainly by French and British scientists. 
What I've described here vaguely and qualitatively, the equations 
describe exactly and quantitatively. 

Maxwell then asked himself a strange question: what would 
these equations look like in empty space, in a vacuum, in a place 
where there were no electrical charges and no electrical currents? 
We might very well anticipate no electric and no magnetic fields in 
a vacuum. Instead, he suggested that the right form of the 
Maxwell equations for the behaviour of electricity and magnetism 
in empty space is this: 

V B = 0 
V x E = -B 
V x B = jioCoE 

He set p equal to zero, indicating that there are no electrical 
charges. He also set j equal to zero, indicating that there are no 
electrical currents. But he didn't discard the last term in the fourth 
equation, fi^CflE, the feeble displacement current in insulators. 

Why not? As you can see from the equations, Maxwell's 
intuition preserved the symmetry between the magnetic and 
electric fields. Even in a vacuum, in the total absence of electric- 
ity, or even matter, a changing magnetic field, he proposed, elicits 
an electric field and vice versa. The equations were to represent 
Nature, and Nature is, Maxwell believed, beautiful and elegant. 
(There was also another, more technical reason for preserving the 
displacement current in a vacuum, which we pass over here.) This 
essentially aesthetic judgement by a nerdish physicist, entirely 
unknown except to a few other academic scientists, has done more 
to shape our civilization than any ten recent presidents and prime 

Briefly, the four Maxwell equations for a vacuum say (1) there 
are no electrical charges in a vacuum; (2) there are no magnetic 
monopoles in a vacuum; (3) a changing magnetic field generates 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

an electrical field; and (4) vice versa. 

When the equations were written down like this, Maxwell was 
readily able to show that E and B propagated through empty space 
as if they were waves. What's more, he could calculate the speed 
of the wave. It was just 1 divided by the square root of e„ times (x„. 
But e 0 and (X, had been measured in the laboratory. When you 
plugged in the numbers you found that the electric and magnetic 
fields in a vacuum ought to propagate, astonishingly, at the same 
speed as had already been measured for light. The agreement was 
too close to be accidental. Suddenly, disconcertingly, electricity 
and magnetism were deeply implicated in the nature of light. 

Since light now appeared to behave as waves and to derive from 
electric and magnetic fields, Maxwell called it electromagnetic. 
Those obscure experiments with batteries and wires had some- 
thing to do with the brightness of the Sun, with how we see, with 
what light is. Ruminating on Maxwell's discovery many years 
later, Albert Einstein wrote, 'To few men in the world has such an 
experience been vouchsafed.' 

Maxwell himself was baffled by the results. The vacuum seemed 
to act like a dielectric. He said that it can be 'electrically 
polarized'. Living in a mechanical age, Maxwell felt obliged to 
offer some kind of mechanical model for the propagation of an 
electromagnetic wave through a perfect vacuum. So he imagined 
space filled with a mysterious substance he called the aether, 
which supported and contained the time-varying electric and 
magnetic fields - something like a throbbing but invisible Jell-0 
permeating the Universe. The quivering of the aether was the 
reason that light travelled through it - just as water waves 
propagate through water and sound waves through air. 

But it had to be very odd stuff, this ether, very thin, ghostly, 
almost incorporeal. The Sun and the Moon, the planets and the 
stars had to pass through it without being slowed down, without 
noticing. And yet it had to be stiff enough to support all these 
waves propagating at prodigious speed. 

The word 'aether' is still, in a desultory fashion, in use - in 
English mainly in the adjective ethereal, residing in the aether. It 
has some of the same connotations as the more modern 'spacy' or 
'spaced out'. When, in the early days of radio, they would say 'On 



the air', the aether is what they had in mind. (The Russian phrase 
is quite literally 'on the aether', v efir.) But of course radio readily 
travels through a vacuum, one of Maxwell's main results. It 
doesn't need air to propagate. The presence of air is, if anything, 
an impediment. 

The whole idea of light and matter moving through the aether 
was to lead in another forty years to Einstein's Special Theory of 
Relativity, E = mc ! , and a great deal else. Relativity, and 
experiments leading up to it, showed conclusively that there is no 
aether supporting the propagation of electromagnetic waves, as 
Einstein writes in the extract from his famous paper that I 
reproduced in Chapter 2. The wave goes by itself. The changing 
electric field generates a magnetic field; the changing magnetic 
field generates an electric field. They hold each other up, by their 

Many physicists were deeply troubled by the demise of the 
'luminiferous' ether. They had needed some mechanical model to 
make the whole notion of the propagation of light in a vacuum 
reasonable, plausible, understandable. But this is a crutch, a 
symptom of our difficulties in reconnoitring realms in which 
common sense no longer serves. The physicist Richard Feynman 
described it this way: 

Today, we understand better that what counts are the equa- 
tions themselves and not the model used to get them. We may 
only question whether the equations are true or false. This is 
answered by doing experiments, and untold numbers of 
experiments have confirmed Maxwell's equations. If we take 
away the scaffolding he used to build it, we find that 
Maxwell's beautiful edifice stands on its own. 

But what are these time-varying electric and magnetic fields 
permeating all of space? What do E and Bmean7 We feel so 
much more comfortable with the idea of things touching and 
jiggling, pushing and pulling, rather than 'fields' magically moving 
objects at a distance, or mere mathematical abstractions. But, as 
Feynman pointed out, our sense that at least in everyday life we 
can rely on solid, sensible physical contact to explain, say, why the 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

butter knife comes to you when you pick it up, is a misconception. 
What does it mean to have physical contact? What exactly is 
happening when you pick up a knife, or push a swing, or make a 
wave in a waterbed by pressing down on it periodically? When we 
investigate deeply, we find that there is no physical contact. 
Instead, the electrical charges on your hand are influencing the 
electrical charges on the knife or swing or waterbed, and vice 
versa. Despite everyday experience and common sense, even 
here, there is only the interaction of electric fields. Nothing is 
touching anything. 

No physicist started out impatient with common-sense notions, 
eager to replace them with some mathematical abstraction that 
could be understood only by rarified theoretical physics. Instead, 
they began, as we all do, with comfortable, standard, common- 
sense notions. The trouble is that Nature does not comply. If we 
no longer insist on our notions of how Nature ought to behave, but 
instead stand before Nature with an open and receptive mind, we 
find that common sense often doesn't work. Why not? Because 
our notions, both hereditary and learned, of how Nature works 
were forged in the millions of years our ancestors were hunters 
and gatherers. In this case common sense is a faithless guide 
because no hunter-gatherer's life ever depended on understanding 
time-variable electric and magnetic fields. There were no evolu- 
tionary penalties for ignorance of Maxwell's equations. In our 
time it's different. 

Maxwell's equations show that a rapidly varying electric field 
(making E large) ought to generate electromagnetic waves. In 
1888 the German physicist Heinrich Hertz did the experiment and 
found that he had generated a new kind of radiation, radio waves. 
Seven years later, British scientists in Cambridge transmitted 
radio signals over a distance of a kilometre. By 1901, Guglielmo 
Marconi of Italy was using radio waves to communicate across the 
Atlantic Ocean. 

The linking-up of the modern world economically, culturally 
and politically by broadcast towers, microwave relays and commu- 
nication satellites traces directly back to Maxwell's judgement to 
include the displacement current in his vacuum equations. So does 
television, which imperfectly instructs and entertains us; radar, 



which may have been the decisive element in the Battle of Britain 
and in the Nazi defeat in World War Two (which I like to think of 
as 'Dafty', the boy who didn't fit in, reaching into the future and 
saving the descendants of his tormentors); the control and naviga- 
tion of airplanes, ships and spacecraft; radio astronomy and the 
search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and significant aspects of 
the electrical power and microelectronics industries. 

What's more, Faraday's and Maxwell's notion of fields has been 
enormously influential in understanding the atomic nucleus, quan- 
tum mechanics, and the fine structure of matter. His unification of 
electricity, magnetism and light into one coherent mathematical 
whole is the inspiration for subsequent attempts - some success- 
ful, some still in their rudimentary stages - to unify all aspects of 
the physical world, including gravity and nuclear forces, into one 
grand theory. Maxwell may fairly be said to have ushered in the 
age of modern physics. 

Our current view of the silent world of Maxwell's varying 
electric and magnetic vectors is described by Richard Feynman in 
these words: 

Try to imagine what the electric and magnetic fields look like 
at present in the space of this lecture room. First of all, there 
is a steady magnetic field; it comes from the currents in the 
interior of the earth - that is, the earth's steady magnetic 
field. Then there are some irregular, nearly static electric 
fields produced perhaps by electric charges generated by 
friction as various people move about in their chairs and rub 
their coat sleeves against the chair arms. Then there are other 
magnetic fields produced by oscillating currents in the electri- 
cal wiring - fields which vary at a frequency of 60 cycles per 
second, in synchronism with the generator at Boulder Dam. 
But more interesting are the electric and magnetic fields 
varying at much higher frequencies. For instance, as light 
travels from window to floor and wall to wall, there are little 
wiggles of the electric and magnetic fields moving along at 
186,000 miles per second. Then there are also infrared waves 
travelling from the warm foreheads to the cold blackboard. 
And we have forgotten the ultraviolet light, the X-rays, and 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

the radiowaves travelling through the room. 

Flying across the room are electromagnetic waves which 
carry music of a jazz band. There are waves modulated by a 
series of impulses representing pictures of events going on in 
other parts of the world, or of imaginary aspirins dissolving in 
imaginary stomachs. To demonstrate the reality of these 
waves it is only necessary to turn on electronic equipment 
that converts these waves into pictures and sounds. 

If we go into further detail to analyze even the smallest 
wiggles, there are tiny electromagnetic waves that have come 
into the room from enormous distances. There are now tiny 
oscillations of the electric field, whose crests are separated by 
a distance of one foot, that have come from millions of miles 
away, transmitted to the earth from the Mariner [2] space 
craft which has just passed Venus. Its signals carry summaries 
of information it has picked up about the planets (informa- 
tion obtained from electromagnetic waves that travelled from 
the planet to the space craft). 

There are very tiny wiggles of the electric and magnetic 
fields that are waves which originated billions of light years 
away - from galaxies in the remotest corners of the universe. 
That this is true has been found by 'filling the room with 
wires' - by building antennas as large as this room. Such 
radiowaves have been detected from places in space beyond 
the range of the greatest optical telescopes. Even they, the 
optical telescopes, are simply gatherers of electromagnetic 
waves. What we call the stars are only inferences, inferences 
drawn from the only physical reality we have yet gotten from 
them - from a careful study of the unendingly complex 
undulations of the electric and magnetic fields reaching us on 

There is, of course, more: the fields produced by lightning 
miles away, the fields of the charged cosmic ray particles as 
they zip through the room, and more, and more. What a 
complicated thing is the electric field in the space around you! 

If Queen Victoria had ever called an urgent meeting of her 
counsellors, and ordered them to invent the equivalent of radio 



and television, it is unlikely that any of them would have 
imagined the path to lead through the experiments of Ampere, 
Biot, Oersted and Faraday, four equations of vector calculus, 
and the judgement to preserve the displacement current in a 
vacuum. They would, I think, have gotten nowhere. Mean- 
while, on his own, driven only by curiosity, costing the govern- 
ment almost nothing, himself unaware that he was laying the 
ground for the Westminster Project, 'Dafty' was scribbling 
away. It's doubtful whether the self-effacing, unsociable Mr 
Maxwell would even have been thought of to perform such a 
study. If he had, probably the government would have been 
telling him what to think about and what not, impeding rather 
than inducing his great discovery. 

Late in life, Maxwell did have one interview with Queen 
Victoria. He worried about it beforehand - essentially about his 
ability to communicate science to a non-expert - but the Queen 
was distracted and the interview was short. Like the four other 
greatest British scientists of recent history, Michael Faraday, 
Charles Darwin, P. A.M. Dirac and Francis Crick, Maxwell was 
never knighted (although Lyell, Kelvin, J.J. Thomson, Ruther- 
ford, Eddington and Hoyle in the next tier were). In Maxwell's 
case, there was not even the excuse that he might hold opinions at 
variance with the Church of England: he was an absolutely 
conventional Christian for his time, more devout than most. 
Maybe it was his nerdishness. 

The communications media - the instruments of education and 
entertainment that James Clerk Maxwell made possible - have 
never, so far as I know, offered even a mini-series on the life and 
thought of their benefactor and founder. By contrast, think of 
how difficult it is to grow up in America without television 
teaching you about, say, the life and times of Davy Crockett or 
Billy the Kid or Al Capone. 

Maxwell married young, but the bond seems to have been 
passionless as well as childless. His excitement was reserved for 
science. This founder of the modern age died in 1879 at the age of 
47. While he is almost forgotten in popular culture, radar astrono- 
mers who map other worlds have remembered: the greatest 
mountain range on Venus, discovered by sending radio waves 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

from Earth, bouncing them off Venus, and detecting the faint 
echoes, is named after him. 

Less than a century after Maxwell's prediction of radio waves, the 
first quest was initiated for signals from possible civilizations on 
planets of other stars. Since then there have been a number of 
searches, some of which I referred to earlier, for the time-varying 
electric and magnetic fields crossing the vast interstellar distances 
from possible other intelligences - biologically very different from 
us - who had also benefited sometime in their histories from the 
insights of local counterparts of James Clerk Maxwell. 

In October 1992, in the Mojave Desert, and in a Puerto Rican 
karst valley, we initiated by far the most promising, powerful and 
comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). For 
the first time NASA would organize and operate the programme. 
The entire sky would be examined over a ten-year period with 
unprecedented sensitivity and frequency range. If, on a planet of 
any of the 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way 
galaxy, anyone had been sending us a radio message, we might 
have had a pretty fair chance of hearing them. 

Just one year later, Congress pulled the plug. SETI was not of 
pressing importance; its interest was limited; it was too expensive. 
But every civilization in human history has devoted some of its 
resources to investigating deep questions about the Universe, and 
it's hard to think of a deeper one than whether we are alone. Even 
if we never decrypted the message contents, the receipt of such a 
signal would transform our view of the Universe and ourselves. 
And if we could understand the message from an advanced 
technical civilization, the practical benefits might be unprec- 
edented. Far from being narrowly based, the SETI programme, 
strongly supported by the scientific community, is also embedded 
in popular culture. The fascination with this enterprise is broad 
and enduring, and for very good reason. And far from being too 
expensive, the programme would have cost about one attack 
helicopter per year. 

I wonder why those members of Congress concerned about 
price tags don't devote greater attention to the Department of 
Defense, which, with the Soviet Union gone and the Cold War 



over, still spends, when all costs are tallied, well over $300 billion 
a year. (And elsewhere in government there are many pro- 
grammes that amount to welfare for the well-to-do.) Perhaps our 
descendants will look back on our time and marvel at us, 
possessed of the technology to detect other beings, but closing our 
ears because we insisted on spending the national wealth to 
protect us from an enemy that no longer exists.* 

David Goodstein, a physicist at Cal Tech, notes that science has 
been growing nearly exponentially for centuries and that it cannot 
continue such growth, because then everybody on the planet 
would have to be a scientist, and then the growth would have to 
stop. He speculates that for this reason, and not because of any 
fundamental disaffection from science, the growth in funding of 
science has slowed measurably in the last few decades. 

Nevertheless, I'm worried about how research funds are distrib- 
uted. I'm worried that cancelling government funds for SETI is 
part of a trend. The government has been pressuring the National 
Science Foundation to move away from basic scientific research 
and to support technology, engineering, applications. Congress is 
suggesting doing away with the US Geological Survey, and 
slashing support for study of the Earth's fragile environment. 
NASA support for research and analysis of data already obtained 
is increasingly constrained. Many young scientists are not only 
unable to find grants to support their research; they are unable to 
find jobs. 

Industrial research and development funded by American com- 
panies has slowed across the board in recent years. Government 
funding for research and development has declined in the same 
period. (Only military research and development increased in the 
decade of the 1980s.) In annual expenditures, Japan is now the 
world's leading investor in civilian research and development. In 
such fields as computers, telecommunications equipment, aero- 
space, machine tools, robotics, and scientific precision equipment, 
the US share of global exports has been declining, while the 
Japanese share has been increasing. In that same period the 

* The SETI programme was briefly resurrected, using $7 million in private 
contributions, in 1995 under the appropriate name Project Phoenix. 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

United States lost its lead to Japan in most semiconductor 
technologies. It experiences severe declines in market share in 
colour TVs, VCRs, phonographs, telephone sets and machine 

Basic research is where scientists are free to pursue their 
curiosity and interrogate Nature, not with any short-term practical 
end in view, but to seek knowledge for its own sake. Scientists of 
course have a vested interest in basic research. It's what they like 
to do, in many cases why they became scientists in the first place. 
But it is in society's interest to support such research. This is how 
the major discoveries that benefit humanity are largely made. 
Whether a few grand and ambitious scientific projects are a better 
investment than a larger number of small programmes is a 
worthwhile question. 

We are rarely smart enough to set about on purpose making the 
discoveries that will drive our economy and safeguard our lives. 
Often, we lack the fundamental research. Instead, we pursue a 
broad range of investigations of Nature, and applications we never 
dreamed of emerge. Not always, of course. But often enough. 

Giving money to someone like Maxwell might have seemed the 
most absurd encouragement of mere 'curiosity-driven' science, 
and an imprudent judgement for practical legislators. Why grant 
money now, so nerdish scientists talking incomprehensible gibber- 
ish can indulge their hobbies, when there are urgent unmet 
national needs? From this point of view it's easy to understand the 
contention that science is just another lobby, another pressure 
group anxious to keep the grant money rolling in so the scientists 
don't ever have to do a hard day's work or meet a payroll. 

Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar and television when he 
first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnet- 
ism; Newton wasn't dreaming of space flight or communications 
satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon; 
Roentgen wasn't contemplating medical diagnosis when he inves- 
tigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it 'X-rays'; 
Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly 
extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; 
Fleming wasn't planning on saving the lives of millions with 
antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a 



growth of mould; Watson and Crick weren't imagining the cure of 
genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry 
of DNA; Rowland and Molina weren't planning to implicate 
CFCs in ozone depletion when they began studying the role of 
halogens in stratospheric photochemistry. 

Members of Congress and other political leaders have from 
time to time found it irresistible to poke fun at seemingly 
obscure scientific research proposals that the government is 
asked to fund. Even as bright a senator as William Proxmire, a 
Harvard graduate, was given to making episodic 'Golden 
Fleece' awards, many commemorating ostensibly useless scien- 
tific projects including SETI. I imagine the same spirit in 
previous governments - a Mr Fleming wishes to study bugs in 
smelly cheese; a Polish woman wishes to sift through tons of 
Central African ore to find minute quantities of a substance she 
says will glow in the dark; a Mr Kepler wants to hear the songs 
the planets sing. 

These discoveries and a multitude of others that grace and 
characterize our time, to some of which our very lives are 
beholden, were made ultimately by scientists given the opportu- 
nity to explore what in their opinion, under the scrutiny of their 
peers, were basic questions in Nature. Industrial applications, in 
which Japan in the last two decades has done so well, are 
excellent. But applications of what? Fundamental research, 
research into the heart of Nature, is the means by which we 
acquire the new knowledge that gets applied. 

Scientists have an obligation, especially when asking for big 
money, to explain with great clarity and honesty what they're 
after. The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would have been 
the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine 
structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price 
tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was cancelled by Congress in 1993 
after about $2 billion had been spent - a worst of both worlds 
outcome. But this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining 
interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood 
what modern high energy accelerators are for. They are not for 
weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for 
something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, 


Maxwell and The Nerds 

called 'the theory of everything'. Explanations that involve enti- 
ties called quarks, charm, flavour, colour, etc. sound as if 
physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view 
of at least some Congresspeople I've talked to, of 'nerds gone 
wild' - which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing 
curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the 
foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I've read some of the 
material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it 
wasn't too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what 
the project was about on a level accessible to bright but sceptical 
non-physicists. If physicists are asking for $10 or $15 billion to 
build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they 
should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, 
metaphors and capable use of the English language, to justify 
their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary 
constraints and political incompetence, I think this is the key to 
the failure of the SSC. 

There is a growing free-market view of human knowledge, 
according to which basic research should compete without govern- 
ment support with all the other institutions and claimants in 
society. If they couldn't have relied on government support, and 
had to compete in the free-market economy of their day, it's 
unlikely that any of the scientists on my list would have been able 
to do their groundbreaking research. And the cost of basic 
research is substantially greater than it was in Maxwell's day - 
both theoretical and, especially, experimental. 

But that aside, would free-market forces be adequate to support 
basic research? Only about ten per cent of meritorious research 
proposals in medicine are funded today. More money is spent on 
quack medicine than on all of medical research. What would it be 
like if government opted out of medical research? 

A necessary aspect of basic research is that its applications lie in 
the future, sometimes decades or even centuries ahead. What's 
more, no one knows which aspects of basic research will have 
practical value and which will not. If scientists cannot make such 
predictions, is it likely that politicians or industrialists can? If 
free-market forces are focused only towards short-term profit - as 
they certainly mainly are in an America with steep declines in 



corporate research - is not this solution tantamount to abandoning 
basic research? 

Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating 
the seed corn. We may have a little more to eat next winter, but 
what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get 
through the winters to come? 

Of course there are many pressing problems facing our nation 
and our species. But reducing basic scientific research is not the 
way to solve them. Scientists do not constitute a voting bloc. They 
have no effective lobby. However, much of their work is in 
everybody's interest. Backing off from fundamental research 
constitutes a failure of nerve, of imagination and of that vision 
thing that we still don't seem to have a handle on. It might strike 
one of those hypothetical extraterrestrials that we were planning 
not to have a future. 

Of course we need literacy, education, jobs, adequate medical 
care and defence, protection of the environment, security in our 
old age, a balanced budget, and a host of other matters. But we 
are a rich society. Can't we also nurture the Maxwells of our time? 
To take one symbolic example, is it really true that we can't afford 
one attack helicopter's worth of seed corn to listen to the stars? 



Science and Witchcraft 

Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is 

Latin proverb 

The 1939 New York World's Fair - that so transfixed me as a 
small visitor from darkest Brooklyn - was about 'The World 
of Tomorrow'. Merely by adopting such a motif, it promised that 
there would be a world of tomorrow, and the most casual glance 
affirmed that it would be better than the world of 1939. Although 
the nuance wholly passed me by, many people longed for such a 
reassurance on the eve of the most brutal and calamitous war in 
human history. I knew at least that I would be growing up in the 
future. The sleek and clean 'tomorrow' portrayed by the Fair was 
appealing and hopeful. And something called science was plainly 
the means by which that future would be realized. 

But if things had gone a little differently, the Fair could have 
given me enormously more. A fierce struggle had gone on behind 
the scenes. The vision that prevailed was that of the Fair's 

* Written with Ann Druyan. The following two chapters include more political 
content than elsewhere in this book. I do not wish to suggest that advocacy of 
science and scepticism necessarily leads to all the political or social conclusions 
I draw. Although sceptical thinking is invaluable in politics, politics is not a 



President and chief spokesman, Grover Whalen - a former 
corporate executive, New York City police chief in a time of 
unprecedented police brutality, and public relations innovator. It 
was he who had envisioned the exhibit buildings as chiefly 
commercial, industrial, oriented to consumer products, and he 
who had convinced Stalin and Mussolini to build lavish national 
pavilions. (He later complained about how often he had been 
obliged to give the fascist salute.) The level of the exhibits, as one 
designer described it, was pitched to the mentality of a twelve- 

However, as recounted by the historian Peter Kuznick of 
American University, a group of prominent scientists, including 
Harold Urey and Albert Einstein, advocated presenting science 
for its own sake, not just as the route to gadgets for sale; 
concentrating on the way of thinking and not just the products of 
science. They were convinced that broad popular understanding 
of science was the antidote to superstition and bigotry; that, as 
science popularizer Watson Davis put it, 'the scientific way is the 
democratic way'. One scientist even suggested that widespread 
public appreciation of the methods of science might work 'a final 
conquest of stupidity' - a worthy, but probably unrealizable, goal. 

As events transpired, almost no real science was tacked on to 
the Fair's exhibits, despite the scientists' protests and their appeals 
to high principles. And yet, some of the little that was added 
trickled down to me and helped to transform my childhood. The 
corporate and consumer focus remained central, though, and 
essentially nothing appeared about science as a way of thinking, 
much less as a bulwark of a free society. 

Exactly half a century later, in the closing years of the Soviet 
Union, Ann Druyan and I found ourselves at a dinner in 
Peredelkino, a village outside Moscow where Communist Party 
officials, retired generals and a few favoured intellectuals had 
their summer homes. The air was electric with the prospect of new 
freedoms - especially the right to speak your mind even if the 
government doesn't like what you're saying. The fabled revolu- 
tion of rising expectations was in full flower. 

But, despite glasnost, there were widespread doubts. Would 


Science and Witchcraft 

those in power really allow their own critics to be heard? Would 
freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of religion, really be 
permitted? Would people inexperienced with freedom be able to 
bear its burdens? 

Some of the Soviet citizens present at the dinner had fought for 
decades and against long odds for the freedoms that most Ameri- 
cans take for granted; indeed, they had been inspired by the 
American experiment, a real-world demonstration that nations, 
even multicultural and multiethnic nations, could survive and 
prosper with these freedoms reasonably intact. They went so far 
as to raise the possibility that prosperity was due to freedom - 
that, in an age of high technology and swift change, the two rise or 
fall together, that the openness of science and democracy, their 
willingness to be judged by experiment, were closely allied ways 
of thinking. 

There were many toasts, as there always are at dinners in that 
part of the world. The most memorable was given by a 
world-famous Soviet novelist. He stood up, raised his glass, 
looked us in the eye, and said, 'To the Americans. They have a 
little freedom.' He paused a beat, and then added: 'And they 
know how to keep it.' 

Do we? 

The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians 
found a way to subvert it, by cashing in on fear and patriotic 
hysteria. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party knew that the button 
to push was ethnic and cultural prejudice. Exploiting tensions 
between France and the US, and a widespread fear that French 
and Irish immigrants were somehow intrinsically unfit to be 
Americans, the Federalists passed a set of laws that have come to 
be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

One law upped the residency requirement for citizenship 
from five to fourteen years. (Citizens of French and Irish origin 
usually voted for the opposition, Thomas Jefferson's 
Democratic-Republican Party.) The Alien Act gave President 
John Adams the power to deport any foreigner who aroused his 
suspicions. Making the President nervous, said a member of 
Congress, 'is the new crime'. Jefferson believed the Alien Act 



had been framed particularly to expel C.F. Volney,* the French 
historian and philosopher; Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, 
patriarch of the famous chemical family; and the British 
scientist Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and an 
intellectual antecedent of James Clerk Maxwell. In Jefferson's 
view, these were just the sort of people America needed. 

The Sedition Act made it unlawful to publish 'false or malicious' 
criticism of the government or to inspire opposition to any of its 
acts. Some two dozen arrests were made, ten people were 
convicted, and many more were censored or intimidated into 
silence. The act attempted, Jefferson said, 'to crush all political 
opposition by making criticism of Federalist officials or policies a 

As soon as Jefferson was elected, indeed in the first week of his 
Presidency in 1801, he began pardoning every victim of the 
Sedition Act because, he said, it was as contrary to the spirit of 
American freedoms as if Congress had ordered us all to fall down 
and worship a golden calf. By 1802, none of the Alien and 
Sedition Acts remained on the books. 

From across two centuries, it's hard to recapture the frenzied 
mood that made the French and the 'wild Irish' seem so grave a 
threat that we were willing to surrender our most precious 
freedoms. Giving credit for French and Irish cultural triumphs, 
advocating equal rights for them, was in effect decried in 
conservative circles as sentimental - unrealistic political cor- 
rectness. But that's how it always works. It always seems an 
aberration later. But by then we're in the grip of the next 

Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a 
fear that they can ride into office. It could be ethnic differences, as 

* A typical passage from Volney's 1791 book Ruins: 

You dispute, you quarrel, you fight for that which is uncertain, that of 
which you doubt. O men! Is this not folly? . . . We must trace a line of 
distinction between those [subjects] that are capable of verification, and 
those that are not, and separate by an inviolable barrier the world of 
fantastical beings from the world of realities; that is to say, all civil effect 
must be taken away from theological and religious opinions. 


Science and Witchcraft 

it was then, perhaps different amounts of melanin in the skin; 
different philosophies or religions; or maybe it's drug use, violent 
crime, economic crisis, school prayer, or 'desecrating' (literally, 
making unholy) the flag. 

Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom 
off the Bill of Rights. Yes, in 1942, Japanese-Americans were 
protected by the Bill of Rights, but we locked them up anyway - 
after all, there was a war on. Yes, there are Constitutional 
prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure, but we have 
a war on drugs and violent crime is racing out of control. Yes, 
there's freedom of speech, but we don't want foreign authors 
here, spouting alien ideologies, do we? The pretexts change from 
year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more 
power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion - even 
though experience plainly shows the danger of such a course of 

If we do not know what we're capable of, we cannot appreciate 
measures taken to protect us from ourselves. I discussed the 
European witch mania in the alien abduction context; I hope the 
reader will forgive me for returning to it in its political context. It 
is an aperture to human self-knowledge. If we focus on what was 
considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and 
secular authorities in the fifteenth- to seventeenth-century witch 
hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the eighteenth- 
century US Constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: includ- 
ing trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and 
against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the 
press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of 
Church and State. 

Friedrich von Spee (pronounced 'Shpay') was a Jesuit priest 
who had the misfortune to hear the confessions of those accused 
of witchcraft in the German city of Wurzburg (see Chapter 7). In 
1631, he published Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecu- 
tors), which exposed the essence of this Church/State terrorism 
against the innocent. Before he was punished he died of the 
plague - as a parish priest serving the afflicted. Here is an excerpt 
from his whistle-blowing book: 



1. Incredibly among us Germans, and especially (I am 
ashamed to say) among Catholics, are popular supersti- 
tions, envy, calumnies, backbiting, insinuations, and the 
like, which, being neither punished nor refuted, stir up 
suspicion of witchcraft. No longer God or nature, but 
witches are responsible for everything. 

2. Hence everybody sets up a clamour that the magistrates 
investigate the witches - whom only popular gossip has 
made so numerous. 

3. Princes, therefore, bid their judges and counsellors bring 
proceedings against the witches. 

4. The judges hardly know where to start, since they have 
no evidence [indicia] or proof. 

5. Meanwhile, the people call this delay suspicious; and the 
princes are persuaded by some informer or another to 
this effect. 

6. In Germany, to offend these princes is a serious offence; 
even clergymen approve whatever pleases them, not 
caring by whom these princes (however well-intentioned) 
have been instigated. 

7. At last, therefore, the judges yield to their wishes and 
contrive to begin the trials. 

8. Other judges who still delay, afraid to get involved in this 
ticklish matter, are sent a special investigator. In this 
field of investigation, whatever inexperience or arro- 
gance he brings to the job is held zeal for justice. His zeal 
for justice is also whetted by hopes of profit, especially 
with a poor and greedy agent with a large family, when 
he receives as stipend so many dollars per head for each 
witch burned, besides the incidental fees and perquisites 
which investigating agents are allowed to extort at will 
from those they summon. 

9. If a madman's ravings or some malicious and idle rumour 
(for no proof of the scandal is ever needed) points to 
some helpless old woman, she is the first to suffer. 

10. Yet to avoid the appearance that she is indicted solely on 
the basis of rumour, without other proofs, a certain 
presumption of guilt is obtained by posing the following 


Science and Witchcraft 

dilemma: either she has led an evil and improper life, or 
she has led a good and proper one. If an evil one, then 
she should be guilty. On the other hand, if she has led a 
good life, this is just as damning; for witches dissemble 
and try to appear especially virtuous. 

11. Therefore the old woman is put in prison. A new proof is 
found through a second dilemma: she is afraid or not 
afraid. If she is (hearing of the horrible tortures used 
against witches), this is sure proof; for her conscience 
accuses her. If she does not show fear (trusting in her 
innocence), this too is a proof; for witches characteristi- 
cally pretend innocence and wear a bold front. 

12. Lest these should be the only proofs, the investigator has 
his snoopers, often depraved and infamous, ferret out all 
her past life. This, of course, cannot be done without 
turning up some saying or doing of hers which men so 
disposed can easily twist or distort into evidence of 

13. Any who have borne her ill now have ample opportunity 
to bring against her whatever accusations they please; 
and everyone says that the evidence is strong against her. 

14. And so she is hurried to the torture, unless, as often 
happens, she was tortured on the very day of her arrest. 

15. In these trials nobody is allowed a lawyer or any means of 
fair defence, for witchcraft is reckoned an exceptional 
crime [of such enormity that all rules of legal procedure 
may be suspended], and whoever ventures to defend the 
prisoner falls himself under suspicion of witchcraft - as 
well as those who dare to utter a protest in these cases 
and to urge the judges to exercise prudence, for they are 
forthwith labelled supporters of witchcraft. Thus every- 
body keeps quiet for fear. 

16. So that it may seem that the woman has an opportunity to 
defend herself, she is brought into court and the indica- 
tions of her guilt are read and examined - if it can be 
called an examination. 

17. Even though she denies these charges and satisfactorily 
answers every accusation, no attention is paid and her 



replies are not even recorded; all the indictments retain 
their force and validity, however perfect her answers to 
them. She is ordered back into prison, there to consider 
more carefully whether she will persist in obstinacy - for, 
since she has already denied her guilt, she is obstinate. 

18. Next day she is brought out again, and hears a decree of 
torture - just as if she had never refuted the charges. 

19. Before torture, however, she is searched for amulets: her 
entire body is shaved, and even those privy parts indicat- 
ing the female sex are wantonly examined. 

20. What is so shocking about this? Priests are treated the 
same way. 

21. When the woman has been shaved and searched, she is 
tortured to make her confess the truth - that is, to declare 
what they want, for naturally anything else will not and 
cannot be the truth. 

22. They start with the first degree, i.e., the less severe 
torture. Although exceedingly severe, it is light com- 
pared to those tortures which follow. Wherefore if she 
confesses, they say the woman has confessed without 

23. Now, what prince can doubt her guilt when he is told she 
has confessed voluntarily, without torture? 

24. She is therefore put to death without scruple. But she 
would have been executed even if she had not confessed; 
for when once the torture has begun, the die is already 
cast; she cannot escape, she has perforce to die. 

25. The result is the same whether she confesses or not. If 
she confesses, her guilt is clear: she is executed. All 
recantation is in vain. If she does not confess, the torture 
is repeated - twice, thrice, four times. In exceptional 
crimes, the torture is not limited in duration, severity, or 

26. If, during the torture, the old woman contorts her 
features with pain, they say she is laughing; if she loses 
consciousness, she is sleeping or has bewitched herself 
into taciturnity. And if she is taciturn, she deserves to be 
burned alive, as lately has been done to some who, 


Science and Witchcraft 

though several times tortured, would not say what the 
investigators wanted. 

27. And even confessors and clergymen agree that she died 
obstinate and impenitent; that she would not be con- 
verted or desert her incubus, but kept faith with him. 

28. If, however, she dies under so much torture, they say the 
devil broke her neck. 

29. Wherefore the corpse is buried underneath the gallows. 

30. On the other hand, if she does not die under torture, and 
if some exceptionally scrupulous judge hesitates to tor- 
ture her further without fresh proofs or to burn her 
without her confession, she is kept in prison and more 
harshly chained, there to rot until she yields, even if it 
take a whole year. 

31. She can never clear herself. The investigating committee 
would feel disgraced if it acquitted a woman; once arrested 
and in chains, she has to be guilty, by fair means or foul. 

32. Meanwhile, ignorant and headstrong priests harass the 
wretched creature so that, whether truly or not, she will 
confess herself guilty; unless she does so, they say, she 
cannot be saved or partake of the sacraments. 

33. More understanding or learned priests cannot visit her in 
prison lest they counsel her or inform the princes what goes 
on. Nothing is more dreaded than that something be 
brought to light to prove the innocence of the accused. 
Persons who try to do so are labelled troublemakers. 

34. While she is kept in prison and tortured, the judges invent 
clever devices to build up new proofs of guilt to convict her 
to her face, so that, when reviewing the trial, some univer- 
sity faculty can confirm her burning alive. 

35. Some judges, to appear ultrascrupulous, have the woman 
exorcized, transferred elsewhere, and tortured all over 
again, to break her taciturnity; if she maintains silence, then 
at last they can burn her. Now, in Heaven's name, I would 
like to know, since she who confesses and she who does not 
both perish alike, how can anybody, no matter how inno- 
cent, escape? O unhappy woman, why have you rashly 
hoped? Why did you not, on first entering prison, admit 



whatever they wanted? Why, foolish and crazy woman, did 
you wish to die so many times when you might have died 
but once? Follow my counsel, and, before undergoing all 
these pains, say you are guilty and die. You will not escape, 
for this were a catastrophic disgrace to the zeal of Germany. 

36. When, under stress of pain, the witch has confessed, her 
plight is indescribable. Not only cannot she escape herself, 
but she is also compelled to accuse others whom she does 
not know, whose names are frequently put into her mouth 
by the investigators or suggested by the executioner, or of 
whom she has heard as suspected or accused. These in turn 
are forced to accuse others, and these still others, so it goes 
on: who can help seeing that it must go on and on? 

37. The judges must either suspend these trials (and so impute 
their validity) or else burn their own folk, themselves, and 
everybody else; for all sooner or later are falsely accused 
and, if tortured, all are proved guilty. 

38. Thus eventually those who at first clamoured most loudly to 
feed the flames are themselves involved, for they rashly 
failed to see that their turn too would come. Thus Heaven 
justly punishes those who with their pestilent tongues 
created so many witches and sent so many innocent to the 
stake . . . 

Von Spee is not explicit about the sickening methods of torture 
employed. Here is an excerpt from an invaluable compilation, The 
Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, by Rossell Hope 
Robbins (1959): 

One might glance at some of the special tortures at Bamberg, 
for example, such as the forcible feeding of the accused on 
herrings cooked in salt, followed by denial of water - a 
sophisticated method which went side by side with immersion 
of the accused in baths of scalding water to which lime had 
been added. Other ways with witches included the wooden 
horse, various kinds of racks, the heated iron chair, leg vises 
[Spanish boots], and large boots of leather or metal into 
which (with the feet in them, of course) was poured boiling 


Science and Witchcraft 

water or molten lead. In the water torture, the question de 
Veau, water was poured down the throat of the accused, along 
with a soft cloth to cause choking. The cloth was pulled out 
quickly so that the entrails would be torn. The thumbscrews 
[gresillons] were a vise designed to compress the thumbs or 
the big toes to the root of the nails, so that the crushing of the 
digit would cause excruciating pain. 

In addition, and more routinely applied, were the strappado and 
squassation and still more ghastly tortures that I will avoid 
describing. After torture, and with the instruments of torture in 
plain view, the victim was asked to sign a statement. This was then 
described as a 'free confession', voluntarily admitted to. 

At great personal risk, von Spee protested the witch mania. So 
did a few others, mainly Catholic and Protestant clergy who had 
witnessed these crimes at first hand - including Gianfrancesco 
Ponzinibio in Italy, Cornelius Loos in Germany and Reginald Scot 
in Britain in the sixteenth century; as well as Johann Mayfurth 
('Listen, you money-hungry judges and bloodthirsty prosecutors, 
the apparitions of the Devil are all lies') in Germany and Alonzo 
Salazar de Frias in Spain in the seventeenth century. Along with 
von Spee and the Quakers generally, they are heroes of our 
species. Why are they not better known? 

In A Candle in the Dark (1656), Thomas Ady addressed a key 

Some again will object and say, If Witches cannot kill, and do 
many strange things by Witchcraft, why have many confessed 
that they have done such Murthers, and other strange mat- 
ters, whereof they have been accused? 

To this I answer, If Adam and Eve in their innocency were 
so easily overcome, and tempted to sin, how much more may 
poor Creatures now after the Fall, by persuasions, promises, 
and threatenings, by keeping from sleep, and continual 
torture, be brought to confess that which is false and impossi- 
ble, and contrary to the faith of a Christian to believe? 

It was not until the eighteenth century that the possibility of 



hallucination as a component in the persecution of witches was 
seriously entertained; Bishop Francis Hutchinson, in his Historical 
Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718), wrote 

Many a man hath verily believed he hath seen a spirit 
externally before him, when it hath been only an internal 
image dancing in his own brain. 

Because of the courage of these opponents of the witch mania, its 
extension to the privileged classes, the danger it posed to the growing 
institution of capitalism, and especially the spread of the ideas of the 
European Enlightenment, witch burnings eventually disappeared. 
The last execution for witchcraft in Holland, cradle of the Enlighten- 
ment, was in 1610; in England, 1684; America, 1692; France, 1745; 
Germany, 1775; and Poland, 1793. In Italy, the Inquisition was 
condemning people to death until the end of the eighteenth century, 
and inquisitorial torture was not abolished in the Catholic Church 
until 1816. The last bastion of support for the reality of witchcraft 
and the necessity of punishment has been the Christian churches. 

The witch mania is shameful. How could we do it? How could we 
be so ignorant about ourselves and our weaknesses? How could it 
have happened in the most 'advanced', the most 'civilized' nations 
then on Earth? Why was it resolutely supported by conservatives, 
monarchists and religious fundamentalists? Why opposed by liberals, 
Quakers and followers of the Enlightenment? If we're absolutely 
sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are 
motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe 
speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is 
wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching 
questions; that our main job is to believe and obey - then the witch 
mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last 
man. Note Friedrich von Spee's very first point, and the implication 
that improved public understanding of superstition and scepticism 
might have helped to short-circuit the whole train of causality. If we 
fail to understand how it worked in the last round, we will not 
recognize it as it emerges in the next. 

'It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of 


Science and Witchcraft 

public opinion,' said Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minis- 
ter. In George Orwell's novel 1984, the 'Big Brother' state 
employs an army of bureaucrats whose only job is to alter the 
records of the past so they conform to the interests of those 
currently in power. 1984 was not just an engaging political fantasy; 
it was based on the Stalinist Soviet Union, where the re-writing of 
history was institutionalized. Soon after Stalin took power, pic- 
tures of his rival Leon Trotsky - a monumental figure in the 1905 
and 1917 revolutions - began to disappear. Heroic and wholly 
anhistoric paintings of Stalin and Lenin together directing the 
Bolshevik Revolution took their place, with Trotsky, the founder 
of the Red Army, nowhere in evidence. These images became 
icons of the state. You could see them in every office building, on 
outdoor advertising signs sometimes ten storeys high, in muse- 
ums, on postage stamps. 

New generations grew up believing that was their history. Older 
generations began to feel that they remembered something of the 
sort, a kind of political false-memory syndrome. Those who made 
the accommodation between their real memories and what the 
leadership wished them to believe exercised what Orwell 
described as 'doublethink'. Those who did not, those old Bolshe- 
viks who could recall the peripheral role of Stalin in the Revolu- 
tion and the central role of Trotsky, were denounced as traitors or 
unreconstructed bourgeoisie or 'Trotskyites' or 'Trotsky-fascists', 
and were imprisoned, tortured, made to confess their treason in 
public, and then executed. It is possible - given absolute control 
over the media and the police - to rewrite the memories of 
hundreds of millions of people, if you have a generation to 
accomplish it in. Almost always, this is done to improve the hold 
that the powerful have on power, or to serve the narcissism or 
megalomania or paranoia of national leaders. It throws a monkey- 
wrench into the error-correcting machinery. It works to erase 
public memory of profound political mistakes, and thus to guaran- 
tee their eventual repetition. 

In our time, with total fabrication of realistic stills, motion 
pictures, and videotapes technologically within reach, with televi- 
sion in every home, and with critical thinking in decline, restruc- 
turing societal memories even without much attention from the 



secret police seems possible. What I'm imagining here is not that 
each of us has a budget of memories implanted in special 
therapeutic sessions by state-appointed psychiatrists, but rather 
that small numbers of people will have so much control over new 
stories, history books, and deeply affecting images as to work 
major changes in collective attitudes. 

We saw a pale echo of what is now possible in 1990-91, when 
Saddam Hussein, the autocrat of Iraq, made a sudden transition in 
the American consciousness from an obscure near-ally - granted 
commodities, high technology, weaponry, and even satellite intel- 
ligence data - to a slavering monster menacing the world. I am not 
myself an admirer of Mr Hussein, but it was striking how quickly 
he could be brought from someone almost no American had heard 
of into the incarnation of evil. These days the apparatus for 
generating indignation is busy elsewhere. How confident are we 
that the power to drive and determine public opinion will always 
reside in responsible hands? 

Another contemporary example is the 'war' on drugs where the 
government and munificently funded civic groups systematically 
distort and even invent scientific evidence of adverse effects 
(especially of marijuana), and in which no public official is 
permitted even to raise the topic for open discussion. 

But it's hard to keep potent historical truths bottled up forever. 
New data repositories are uncovered. New, less ideological, genera- 
tions of historians grow up. In the late 1980s and before, Ann 
Druyan and I would routinely smuggle copies of Trotsky's History of 
the Russian Revolution into the USSR, so our colleagues could know 
a little about their own political beginnings. By the fiftieth anniver- 
sary of the murder of Trotsky (Stalin's assassin had cracked Trotsky's 
head open with a hammer), Izvestia could extol Trotsky as 'a great 
and irreproachable* revolutionary', and a German Communist pub- 
lication went so far as to describe him as 

fight[ing] for all of us who love human civilization, for whom 
this civilization is our nationality. His murderer . . . tried, in 

* Suggesting that the authorities have learned nothing from their history, except 
substituting one historical figure for another on the list of Irreproachables. 


Science and Witchcraft 

killing him, to kill this civilization . . . [This] was a man who 
had in his head the most valuable and best-organized brain 
that was ever crushed by a hammer. 

Trends working at least marginally towards the implantation of a 
very narrow range of attitudes, memories and opinions include 
control of major television networks and newspapers by a small 
number of similarly motivated powerful corporations and indi- 
viduals, the disappearance of competitive daily newspapers in 
many cities, the replacement of substantive debate by sleaze in 
political campaigns, and episodic erosion of the principle of the 
separation of powers. It is estimated (by the American media 
expert Ben Bagditrian) that fewer than two dozen corporations 
control more than half of the global business in daily newspapers, 
magazines, television, books and movies! The proliferation of 
cable television channels, cheap long-distance telephone calls, fax 
machines, computer bulletin boards and networks, inexpensive 
computer self-publishing and surviving instances of the traditional 
liberal arts university curriculum are trends that might work in the 
opposite direction. 

It's hard to tell how it's going to turn out. 

The business of scepticism is to be dangerous. Scepticism 
challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, includ- 
ing, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought, they will 
probably not restrict their scepticism to UFOs, aspirin commer- 
cials and 35,000-year-old channellees. Maybe they'll start asking 
awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or 
religious institutions. Perhaps they'll challenge the opinions of 
those in power. Then where would we be? 

Ethnocentrism, xenophobia and nationalism are these days rife in 
many parts of the world. Government repression of unpopular 
views is still widespread. False or misleading memories are 
inculcated. For the defenders of such attitudes, science is disturb- 
ing. It claims access to truths that are largely independent of 
ethnic or cultural biases. By its very nature, science transcends 
national boundaries. Put scientists working in the same field of 
study together in a room and even if they share no common 



spoken language, they will find a way to communicate. Science 
itself is a transnational language. Scientists are naturally cosmo- 
politan in attitude and are more likely to see through efforts to 
divide the human family into many small and warring factions. 
'There is no national science,' said the Russian playwright Anton 
Chekhov, 'just as there is no national multiplication table.' 
(Likewise, for many, there is no such thing as a national religion, 
although the religion of nationalism has millions of adherents.) 

In disproportionate numbers, scientists are found in the ranks 
of social critics (or, less charitably, 'dissidents'), challenging the 
policies and myths of their own nations. The heroic names of the 
physicists Andrei Sakharov* in the former USSR, Albert Einstein 
and Leo Szilard in the United States, and Fang Li-zhu in China 
spring readily enough to mind, the first and last risking their lives. 
Especially in the aftermath of the invention of nuclear weapons, 
scientists have been portrayed as ethical cretins. This is an 
injustice, considering all those who, sometimes at considerable 
personal peril, have spoken out against their own countries' 
misapplications of science and technology. 

For example, the chemist Linus Pauling (1901-94) was, more 
than any other person, responsible for the Limited Test Ban 
Treaty of 1963, which halted above-ground explosions of nuclear 
weapons by the United States, the Soviet Union and the United 
Kingdom. He mounted a blistering campaign of moral outrage 
and scientific data, made more credible by the fact that he was a 
Nobel laureate. In the American press, he was generally vilified 
for his troubles, and in the 1950s the State Department cancelled 
his passport because he had been insufficiently anti-communist. 
His Nobel Prize was awarded for the application of quantum 
mechanical insights - resonances, and what is called hybridization 

* As a much-decorated 'Hero' of the Soviet Union, and privy to its nuclear 
secrets, Sakharov in the Cold War year 1968 boldly wrote - in a book published 
in the West and widely distributed in samizdat in the USSR - 'Freedom of 
thought is the only guarantee against an infection of peoples by the mass myths, 
which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demogogues, can be 
transformed into bloody dictatorships.' He was thinking of both East and West. 
I would add that free thought is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for 


Science and Witchcraft 

of orbitals - to explain the nature of the chemical bond that joins 
atoms together into molecules. These ideas are now the bread and 
butter of modern chemistry. But in the Soviet Union, Pauling's 
work on structural chemistry was denounced as incompatible with 
dialectical materialism and declared off-limits to Soviet chemists. 

Undaunted by this criticism East and West - indeed, not even 
slowed down - he went on to do monumental work on how 
anaesthetics work, identified the cause of sickle cell anaemia (a 
single nucleotide substitution in DNA), and showed how the 
evolutionary history of life might be read by comparing the DNAs 
of various organisms. He was hot on the trail of the structure of 
DNA; Watson and Crick were consciously rushing to get there 
before Pauling. The verdict on his assessment of Vitamin C is 
apparently still out. 'That man is a real genius' was Albert 
Einstein's assessment. 

In all this time he continued to work for peace and amity. When 
Ann and I once asked Pauling about the roots of his dedication to 
social issues, he gave a memorable reply: 'I did it to be worthy of 
the respect of my wife,' Helen Ava Pauling. He won a second 
Nobel Prize, this one in peace, for his work on the nuclear test 
ban, becoming the only person in history to win two unshared 
Nobel Prizes. 

There were some who saw Pauling as a troublemaker. Those 
unhappy about social change may be tempted to view science itself 
with suspicion. Technology is safe, they tend to think, readily 
guided and controlled by industry and government. But pure 
science, science for its own sake, science as curiosity, science that 
might lead anywhere and challenge anything, that's another story. 
Certain areas of pure science are the unique pathway to future 
technologies - true enough - but the attitudes of science, if 
applied broadly, can be perceived as dangerous. Through salaries, 
social pressures, and the distribution of prestige and awards, 
societies try to herd scientists into some reasonably safe middle 
ground - between too little long-term technological progress and 
too much short-term social criticism. 

Unlike Pauling, many scientists consider their job to be science, 
narrowly defined, and believe that engaging in politics or social 
criticism is not just a distraction from but antithetical to the 



scientific life. As mentioned earlier, during the Manhattan 
Project, the successful World War Two US effort to build nuclear 
weapons before the Nazis did, certain participating scientists 
began to have reservations, the more so when it became clear how 
immensely powerful these weapons were. Some, such as Leo 
Szilard, James Franck, Harold Urey and Robert R. Wilson, tried 
to call the attention of political leaders and the public (especially 
after the Nazis were defeated) to the dangers of the forthcoming 
arms race, which they foresaw very well, with the Soviet Union. 
Others argued that policy matters were outside their jurisdiction. 
T was put on Earth to make certain discoveries,' said Enrico 
Fermi, 'and what the political leaders do with them is not my 
business.' But even so, Fermi was so appalled by the dangers of 
the thermonuclear weapon Edward Teller was advocating that he 
co-authored a famous document urging the United States not to 
build it, calling it 'evil'. 

Jeremy Stone, the president of the Federation of American 
Scientists, has described Teller - whose efforts to justify thermo- 
nuclear weapons I described in a previous chapter - in these 

Edward Teller . . . insisted, at first for personal intellectual 
reasons and later for geopolitical reasons, that a hydrogen 
bomb be built. Using tactics of exaggeration and even smear, 
he successfully manipulated the policy-making process for 
five decades, denouncing all manner of arms control meas- 
ures and promoting arms-race-escalating programs of many 

The Soviet Union, hearing of his H-bomb project, built its 
own H-bomb. As a direct consequence of the unusual person- 
ality of this particular individual and of the power of the 
H-bomb, the world may have risked a level of annihilation 
that might not otherwise have transpired, or might have come 
later and under better political controls. 

If so, no scientist has ever had more influence on the 
risks that humanity has run than Edward Teller, and 
Teller's general behavior throughout the arms race was 
reprehensible . . . 


Science and Witchcraft 

Edward Teller's fixation on the H-bomb may have led him 
to do more to imperil life on this planet than any other 
individual in our species . . . 

Compared to Teller, the leaders of Western atomic science 
were frequently babes in the political woods - their leader- 
ship having been determined by their professional skills 
rather than by, in this case, their political skills. 

My purpose here is not to castigate a scientist for succumbing to 
very human passions, but to reiterate that new imperative: the 
unprecedented powers that science now makes available must be 
accompanied by unprecedented levels of ethical focus and concern 
by the scientific community, as well as the most broadly based 
public education into the importance of science and democracy. 



Real Patriots Ask Questions* 

It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen 
from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to 
keep the government from falling into error. 

US Supreme Court 
Justice Robert H. Jackson, 1950 

It is a fact of life on our beleaguered little planet that widespread 
torture, famine and governmental criminal irresponsibility are 
much more likely to be found in tyrannical than in democratic 
governments. Why? Because the rulers of the former are much 
less likely to be thrown out of office for their misdeeds than the 
rulers of the latter. This is error-correcting machinery in politics. 

The methods of science, with all its imperfections, can be used 
to improve social, political and economic systems, and this is, I 
think, true no matter what criterion of improvement is adopted. 
How is this possible if science is based on experiment? Humans 
are not electrons or laboratory rats. But every act of Congress, 
every Supreme Court decision, every Presidential National Secu- 
rity Directive, every change in the Prime Rate is an experiment. 
Every shift in economic policy, every increase or decrease in 
funding for Head Start, every toughening of criminal sentences is 
an experiment. Exchanging needles, making condoms freely 

* Written with Ann Druyan. 


Real Patriots Ask Questions 

available, or decriminalizing marijuana are all experiments. 
Doing nothing to help Abyssinia against Italy, or to prevent Nazi 
Germany from invading the Rhineland was an experiment. Com- 
munism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and China was an 
experiment. Privatizing mental health care or prisons is an experi- 
ment. Japan and West Germany investing a great deal in science 
and technology and next to nothing on defence - and finding that 
their economies boomed - was an experiment. Handguns are 
available for self-protection in Seattle, but not in nearby Vancou- 
ver, Canada; handgun killings are five times more common in 
Seattle and the handgun suicide rate is ten times greater in Seattle. 
Guns make impulsive killing easy. This is also an experiment. In 
almost all of these cases, adequate control experiments are not 
performed, or variables are insufficiently separated. Nevertheless, 
to a certain and often useful degree, such ideas can be tested. The 
great waste would be to ignore the results of social experiments 
because they seem to be ideologically unpalatable. 

There is no nation on Earth today optimized for the middle of 
the twenty-first century. We face an abundance of subtle and 
complex problems. We need therefore subtle and complex solu- 
tions. Since there is no deductive theory of social organization, 
our only recourse is scientific experiment - trying out sometimes 
on small scales (community, city and state level, say) a wide range 
of alternatives. One of the perquisites of power on becoming 
prime minister in China in the fifth century BC was that you got to 
construct a model state in your home district or province. It was 
Confucius' chief life failing, he lamented, that he never got to try. 

Even a casual scrutiny of history reveals that we humans have a 
sad tendency to make the same mistakes again and again. We're 
afraid of strangers or anybody who's a little different from us. 
When we get scared, we start pushing people around. We have 
readily accessible buttons that release powerful emotions when 
pressed. We can be manipulated into utter senselessness by clever 
politicians. Give us the right kind of leader and, like the most 
suggestible subjects of the hypnotherapists, we'll gladly do just 
about anything he wants - even things we know to be wrong. The 
framers of the Constitution were students of history. In recogni- 
tion of the human condition, they sought to invent a means that 



would keep us free in spite of ourselves. 

Some of the opponents of the US Constitution insisted that it 
would never work; that a republican form of government spanning 
a land with 'such dissimilar climates, economies, morals, politics, 
and peoples,' as Governor George Clinton of New York said, was 
impossible; that such a government and such a Constitution, as 
Patrick Henry of Virginia declared, 'contradicts all the experience 
of the world'. The experiment was tried anyway. 

Scientific findings and attitudes were common in those who 
invented the United States. The supreme authority, outranking 
any personal opinion, any book, any revelation, was - as the 
Declaration of Independence puts it - 'the laws of nature and of 
nature's GOD'. Dr Benjamin Franklin was revered in Europe and 
America as the founder of the new field of electrical physics. At 
the Constitutional Convention of 1789 John Adams repeatedly 
appealed to the analogy of mechanical balance in machines; 
others to William Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the 
blood. Late in life Adams wrote, All mankind are chemists from 
their cradles to their graves . . . The Material Universe is a 
chemical experiment.' James Madison used chemical and biologi- 
cal metaphors in The Federalist Papers. The American revolution- 
aries were creatures of the European Enlightenment which 
provides an essential background for understanding the origins 
and purpose of the United States. 

'Science and its philosophical corollaries,' wrote the American 
historian Clinton Rossiter 

were perhaps the most important intellectual force shaping 
the destiny of eighteenth-century America . . . Franklin was 
only one of a number of forward-looking colonists who 
recognized the kinship of scientific method and democratic 
procedure. Free inquiry, free exchange of information, opti- 
mism, self-criticism, pragmatism, objectivity - all these ingre- 
dients of the coming republic were already active in the 
republic of science that flourished in the eighteenth century. 

Thomas Jefferson was a scientist. That's how he described him- 
self. When you visit his home at Monticello, Virginia, the moment 

Real Patriots Ask Questions 

you enter its portals you find ample evidence of his scientific 
interests - not just in his immense and varied library, but in 
copying machines, automatic doors, telescopes and other instru- 
ments, some at the cutting edge of early nineteenth-century tech- 
nology. Some he invented, some he copied, some he purchased. He 
compared the plants and animals in America with Europe's, uncov- 
ered fossils, used the calculus in the design of a new plough. He 
mastered Newtonian physics. Nature destined him, he said, to be a 
scientist, but there were no opportunities for scientists in pre- 
revolutionary Virginia. Other, more urgent, needs took precedence. 
He threw himself into the historic events that were transpiring 
around him. Once independence was won, he said, later generations 
could devote themselves to science and scholarship. 

Jefferson was an early hero of mine, not because of his scientific 
interests (although they very much helped to mould his political 
philosophy), but because he, almost more than anyone else, was 
responsible for the spread of democracy throughout the world. The 
idea - breathtaking, radical and revolutionary at the time (in many 
places in the world, it still is) is that not kings, not priests, not big city 
bosses, not dictators, not a military cabal, not a de facto conspiracy of 
the wealthy, but ordinary people, working together, are to rule the 
nations. Not only was Jefferson a leading theoretician of this cause; 
he was also involved in the most practical way, helping to bring about 
the great American political experiment that has, all over the world, 
been admired and emulated since. 

He died at Monticello on 4 July 1826, fifty years to the day after 
the colonies issued that stirring document, written by Jefferson, 
called the Declaration of Independence. It was denounced by 
conservatives worldwide. Monarchy, aristocracy and state-supported 
religion - that's what conservatives were defending then. In a letter 
composed a few days before his death, he wrote that it was the 'light 
of science' that had demonstrated that 'the mass of mankind has not 
been born with saddles on their backs', nor were a favoured few born 
'booted and spurred'. He had written in the Declaration of Inde- 
pendence that we all must have the same opportunities, the same 
'unalienable' rights. And if the definition of 'all' was disgracefully 
incomplete in 1776, the spirit of the Declaration was generous 
enough that today 'all' is far more inclusive. 



Jefferson was a student of history - not just the compliant and 
safe history that praises our own time or country or ethnic group, 
but the real history of real humans, our weaknesses as well as our 
strengths. History taught him that the rich and powerful will steal 
and oppress if given half a chance. He described the governments 
of Europe, which he saw at first hand as the American ambassa- 
dor to France. Under the pretence of government, he said, they 
had divided their nations into two classes: wolves and sheep. 
Jefferson taught that every government degenerates when it is left 
to the rulers alone, because rulers - by the very act of ruling - 
misuse the public trust. The people themselves, he said, are the 
only prudent repository of power. 

But he worried that the people - and the argument goes back to 
Thucydides and Aristotle - are easily misled. So he advocated 
safeguards, insurance policies. One was the constitutional separa- 
tion of powers; accordingly, various groups, some pursuing their 
own selfish interests, balance one another, preventing any one of 
them from running away with the country: the Executive, Legisla- 
tive and Judicial Branches; the House and the Senate; the States 
and the Federal Government. He also stressed, passionately and 
repeatedly, that it was essential for the people to understand the 
risks and benefits of government, to educate themselves, and to 
involve themselves in the political process. Without that, he said, 
the wolves will take over. Here's how he put it in Notes on 
Virginia, stressing how the powerful and unscrupulous find zones 
of vulnerability they can exploit: 

In every government on earth is some trace of human 
weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which 
cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, culti- 
vate and improve. Every government degenerates when 
trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people them- 
selves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render 
even them safe, their minds must be improved . . . 

Jefferson had little to do with the actual writing of the US 
Constitution; as it was being formulated, he was serving as 
American minister to France. When he read its provisions, he was 


Real Patriots Ask Questions 

pleased, but with two reservations. One deficiency: no limit was 
provided on the number of terms the President could serve. This, 
Jefferson feared, was a way for a President to become a king, in fact 
if not in law. The other major deficiency was the absence of a bill of 
rights. The citizen, the average person, was insufficiently protected, 
Jefferson thought, from the inevitable abuses of those in power. 

He advocated freedom of speech, in part so that even wildly 
unpopular views could be expressed, so that deviations from the 
conventional wisdom could be offered for consideration. Personally 
he was an extremely amiable man, reluctant to criticize even his 
sworn enemies. He displayed a bust of his arch-adversary Alexander 
Hamilton in the vestibule at Monticello. Nevertheless, he believed 
that the habit of scepticism is an essential prerequisite for responsible 
citizenship. He argued that the cost of education is trivial compared 
to the cost of ignorance, of leaving the government to the wolves. He 
taught that the country is safe only when the people rule. 

Part of the duty of citizenship is not to be intimidated into 
conformity. I wish that the oath of citizenship taken by recent 
immigrants, and the pledge that students routinely recite, 
included something like 'I promise to question everything my 
leaders tell me'. That would be really to Thomas Jefferson's point. 
'I promise to use my critical faculties. I promise to develop my 
independence of thought. I promise to educate myself so I can 
make my own judgements.' 

I also wish that the Pledge of Allegiance were directed at the 
Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as it is when the President 
takes his oath of office, rather than to the flag and the nation. 

When we consider the founders of our nation - Jefferson, 
Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, 
Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others - we have before 
us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political 
leaders. They were well educated. Products of the European 
Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human 
fallibility and weakness and corruptibility. They were fluent in the 
English language. They wrote their own speeches. They were 
realistic and practical, and at the same time motivated by high 
principles. They were not checking the pollsters on what to think 
this week. They knew what to think. They were comfortable with 



long-term thinking, planning even further ahead than the next 
election. They were self-sufficient, not requiring careers as politi- 
cians or lobbyists to make a living. They were able to bring out the 
best in us. They were interested in and, at least two of them, 
fluent in science. They attempted to set a course for the United 
States into the far future - not so much by establishing laws as by 
setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed. 

The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably 
well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, 
more often than not, to correct its own trajectory. 

At that time, there were only about two and a half million 
citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred 
times more. So if there were ten people of the calibre of Thomas 
Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas 
Jeffersons today. 

Where are they? 

One reason the Constitution is a daring and courageous document 
is that it allows for continuing change, even of the form of 
government itself, if the people so wish. Because no one is wise 
enough to foresee which ideas may answer urgent societal needs - 
even if they're counterintuitive and have been troubling in the 
past - this document tries to guarantee the fullest and freest 
expression of views. 

There is, of course, a price. Most of us are for freedom of 
expression when there's a danger that our own views will be 
suppressed. We're not all that upset, though, when views we 
despise encounter a little censorship here and there. But within 
certain narrowly circumscribed limits - Justice Oliver Wendell 
Holmes's famous example was causing panic by falsely crying 'fire' 
in a crowded theatre - great liberties are permitted in America: 

• Gun collectors are free to use portraits of the Chief Justice, the 
Speaker of the House, or the Director of the FBI for target 
practice; outraged civic-minded citizens are free to burn in 
effigy the President of the United States. 

• Even if they mock Judaeo-Christian-Islamic values, even if they 
ridicule everything most of us hold dear, devil-worshippers (if 


Real Patriots Ask Questions 

there are any) are entitled to practise their religion, so long as 
they break no constitutionally valid law. 

• A purported scientific article or popular book asserting the 
'superiority' of one race over another may not be censored by 
the government, no matter how pernicious it is; the cure for a 
fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of 

• Individuals may, if they wish, praise the lives and politics of such 
undisputed mass murderers as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Mao 
Zedong. Even detestable opinions have a right to be heard. 

• Individuals or groups are free to argue that a Jewish or Masonic 
conspiracy is taking over the world, or that the Federal 
government is in league with the Devil. 

The system founded by Jefferson, Madison and their colleagues 
offers means of expression to those who do not understand its 
origins and wish to replace it by something very different. For 
example, Tom Clark, Attorney General and therefore chief law 
enforcement officer of the United States, in 1948 offered this 
suggestion: 'Those who do not believe in the ideology of the 
United States shall not be allowed to stay in the United States.' 
But if there is one key and characteristic US ideology, it is that 
there are no mandatory and no forbidden ideologies. Some more 
recent 1990s cases: John Brockhoeft, in jail for bombing an 
abortion clinic in Cincinnati, wrote, in a 'pro-life' newsletter: 

I'm a very narrow-minded, intolerant, reactionary, Bible- 
thumping fundamentalist ... a zealot and fanatic . . . The 
reason the United States was once a great nation, besides 
being blessed by God, is because she was founded on truth, 
justice, and narrow-mindedness. 

Randall Terry, founder of 'Operation Rescue', an organization that 
blockades abortion clinics, told a congregation in August 1993: 

Let a wave of intolerance wash over you . . . Yes, hate is 
good . . . Our goal is a Christian nation . . . We are called by 
God to conquer this country . . . We don't want pluralism. 



The expression of such views is protected, and properly so, under 
the Bill of Rights, even if those protected would abolish the Bill of 
Rights if they got the chance. The protection for the rest of us is to 
use that same Bill of Rights to get across to every citizen the 
indispensability of the Bill of Rights. 

What means to protect themselves against human fallibility, 
what error-protection machinery do these alternative doctrines 
and institutions offer? An infallible leader? Race? Nationalism? 
Wholesale disengagement from civilization, except for explosives 
and automatic weapons? How can they be sure - especially in the 
darkness of the twentieth century? Don't they need candles? 

In his celebrated little book, On Liberty, the English philoso- 
pher John Stuart Mill argued that silencing an opinion is 'a 
peculiar evil'. If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the 
'opportunity of exchanging error for truth'; and if it's wrong, we 
are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in 'its collision 
with error'. If we know only our own side of the argument, we 
hardly know even that; it becomes stale, soon learned only by 
rote, untested, a pallid and lifeless truth. 

Mill also wrote, 'If society lets any considerable number of its 
members grow up as mere children, incapable of being acted on 
by rational consideration of distant motives, society has itself to 
blame.' Jefferson made the same point even more strongly: 'If a 
nation expects to be both ignorant and free in a state of civiliza- 
tion, it expects what never was and never will be.' In a letter to 
Madison, he continued the thought: A society that will trade a 
little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.' 

When permitted to listen to alternative opinions and engage in 
substantive debate, people have been known to change their 
minds. It can happen. For example, Hugo Black, in his youth, was 
a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court 
justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court 
decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitu- 
tion, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: it was said that 
when he was a young man, he dressed up in white robes and 
scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes 
and scared white folks. 

In matters of criminal justice, the Bill of Rights recognizes the 


Real Patriots Ask Questions 

temptation that may be felt by police, prosecutors and the 
judiciary to intimidate witnesses and expedite punishment. The 
criminal-justice system is fallible: innocent people might be pun- 
ished for crimes they did not commit; governments are perfectly 
capable of framing those who, for reasons unconnected with the 
purported crime, they do not like. So the Bill of Rights protects 
defendants. A kind of cost -benefit analysis is made. The guilty 
may on occasion be set free so that the innocent will not be 
punished. This is not only a moral virtue; it also inhibits the 
misuse of the criminal-justice system to suppress unpopular 
opinions or despised minorities. It is part of the error-correction 

New ideas, invention and creativity in general, always spearhead a 
kind of freedom, a breaking out from hobbling constraints. 
Freedom is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment 
of science which is one reason the Soviet Union could not remain 
a totalitarian state and be technologically competitive. At the 
same time, science - or rather its delicate mix of openness and 
scepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate - is a 
prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in 
an industrial and highly technological society. 

Once you questioned the religious insistence on the prevailing 
view that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe, why should 
you accept the repeated and confident assertions by religious 
leaders that God sent kings to rule over us? In the seventeenth 
century, it was easy to whip English and Colonial juries into a 
frenzy over this impiety or that heresy. They were willing to 
torture people to death for their beliefs. By the late eighteenth 
century, they weren't so sure. 

Rossiter again (from Seedtime of the Republic, 1953): 

Under the pressure of the American environment, Christian- 
ity grew more humanistic and temperate - more tolerant with 
the struggle of the sects, more liberal with the growth of 
optimism and rationalism, more experimental with the rise of 
science, more individualistic with the advent of democracy. 
Equally important, increasing numbers of colonists, as a 



legion of preachers loudly lamented, were turning secular in 
curiosity and skeptical in attitude. 

The Bill of Rights uncoupled religion from the state, in part 
because so many religions were steeped in an absolutist frame of 
mind, each convinced that it alone had a monopoly on the truth 
and therefore eager for the state to impose this truth on others. 
Often, the leaders and practitioners of absolutist religions were 
unable to perceive any middle ground or recognize that the truth 
might draw upon and embrace apparently contradictory doctrines. 

The framers of the Bill of Rights had before them the example 
of England, where the ecclesiastical crime of heresy and the 
secular crime of treason had become nearly indistinguishable. 
Many of the early colonists had come to America fleeing religious 
persecution, although some of them were perfectly happy to 
persecute other people for their beliefs. The founders of our 
nation recognized that a close relation between the government 
and any of the quarrelsome religions would be fatal to freedom - 
and injurious to religion. Justice Black (in the Supreme Court 
decision Engel v. Vitale, 1962) described the Establishment Clause 
of the First Amendment this way: 

Its first and most immediate purpose rested on the belief that 
a union of government and religion tends to destroy govern- 
ment and degrade religion. 

Moreover, here too the separation of powers works. Each sect 
and cult, as Walter Savage Landor once noted, is a moral check 
on the others: 'Competition is as wholesome in religion as in 
commerce.' But the price is high: This competition is an 
impediment to religious bodies acting in concert to address the 
common good. 
Rossiter concludes: 

the twin doctrines of separation of church and state and 
liberty of individual conscience are the marrow of our democ- 
racy, if not indeed America's most magnificent contribution 
to the freeing of Western man. 


Real Patriots Ask Questions 

Now it's no good to have such rights if they're not used - a right of 
free speech when no one contradicts the government, freedom of 
the press when no one is willing to ask the tough questions, a right 
of assembly when there are no protests, universal suffrage when 
less than half the electorate votes, separation of church and state 
when the wall of separation is not regularly repaired. Through 
disuse they can become no more than votive objects, patriotic 
lip-service. Rights and freedoms: use 'em or lose 'em. 

Due to the foresight of the framers of the Bill of Rights - and 
even more so to all those who, at considerable personal risk, 
insisted on exercising those rights - it's hard now to bottle up free 
speech. School library committees, the immigration service, the 
police, the FBI or the ambitious politician looking to score cheap 
votes, may attempt it from time to time, but sooner or later the 
cork pops. The Constitution is, after all, the law of the land, 
public officials are sworn to uphold it, and activists and the courts 
episodically hold their feet to the fire. 

However, through lowered educational standards, declining 
intellectual competence, diminished zest for substantive debate, 
and social sanctions against scepticism, our liberties can be slowly 
eroded and our rights subverted. The founders understood this 
well: 'The time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is 
while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united,' said Thomas 

From the conclusion of this [Revolutionary] war we shall be 
going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every 
moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, 
therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget 
themselves but in the sole faculty of making money, and will 
never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. 
The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the 
conclusion of this war will remain on us long, will be made 
heavier and heavier, 'til our rights shall revive or expire in a 

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms 


reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you 
don't have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, 
should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen - 
or the citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such 
rights remain unprotected. If we can't think for ourselves, if we're 
unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands 
of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their 
own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, 
we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the 
reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, 
humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that 
we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands 
between us and the enveloping darkness. 



It has been my great pleasure over many years to teach a Senior 
Seminar on Critical Thinking at Cornell University. I've been 
able to select students from all over the University on the basis 
both of ability, and of cultural and disciplinary diversity. We stress 
written assignments and oral argumentation. Towards the end of 
the course, students select a range of wildly controversial social 
issues in which they have major emotional investments. Paired 
two-by-two they prepare for a succession of end-of-semester oral 
debates. A few weeks before the debates, however, they are 
informed that it is the task of each to present the point of view of 
the opponent in a way that's satisfactory to the opponent - so the 
opponent will say, 'Yes, that's a fair presentation of my views.' In 
the joint written debate they explore their differences, but also 
how the debate process has helped them better to understand the 
opposing point of view. Some of the topics in this book were first 
presented to these students; I have learned much from their 
reception and criticism of my ideas, and want to thank them here. 
I'm also grateful to Cornell's Department of Astronomy, and its 
Chair, Yervant Terzian, for permitting me to teach the course, 
which, although labelled Astronomy 490, presents only a little 

Some of this book has also been presented in Parade magazine, 
a supplement to Sunday newspapers all over North America, with 
some 83 million readers each week. The vigorous feedback I've 



received from Parade readers has greatly enhanced my under- 
standing of the issues described in this book and the variety of 
public attitudes. I have in several places excerpted some of my 
mail from Parade readers which, it seems to me, has provided a 
kind of finger on the pulse of the citizenry of the United States. 
The Editor-in-Chief of Parade, Walter Anderson, and the Senior 
Editor, David Currier, as well as the editorial and research staff of 
this remarkable magazine have in many cases greatly improved 
my presentation. They also have permitted opinions to be 
expressed that might not have made it into print in mass-market 
publications less dedicated to the First Amendment of the US 
Constitution. Some portions of the text first appeared in The 
Washington Post and The New York Times. The last chapter is 
based in part on an address I had the pleasure of delivering on 4 
July 1992 from the East Portico at Monticello - the 'back of the 
nickel' - on the occasion of the induction to US citizenship of 
people from thirty-one other nations. 

My opinions on democracy, the method of science and public 
education have been influenced by enormous numbers of people 
over the years, many of whom I mention in the body of the text. 
But I would like to single out here the inspiration I have received 
from Martin Gardner, Isaac Asimov, Philip Morrison and Henry 
Steele Commager. There is not room to thank the many others 
who have helped provide understanding and lucid examples, or 
who have corrected errors of omission or commission, but I want 
them all to know how deeply grateful I am to them. I must 
however explicitly thank the following friends and colleagues for 
critically reviewing earlier drafts of this book: Bill Aldridge; Susan 
Blackmore; William Cromer; Fred Frankel; Kendrick Frazier; 
Martin Gardner; Ira Glasser; Fred Golden; Kurt Gottfried; 
Lester Grinspoon; Philip Klass; Paul Kurtz; Elizabeth Loftus; 
David Morrison; Richard Ofshe; Jay Orear; Albert Pennybacker; 
Frank Press; Theodore Roszak; Dorion Sagan; David Saperstein; 
Robert Seiple; Steven Soter; Jeremy Stone; Peter Sturrock and 
Yervant Terzian. 

I also am very grateful to my literary agent, Morton Janklow, 
and members of his staff for wise counsel; Roger Houghton, my 
editor at Headline Book Publishing; William Barnett for ushering 



the manuscript through its final phases; Andrea Barnett, Laurel 
Parker, Karenn Gobrecht, Cindi Vita Vogel, Ginny Ryan and 
Christopher Ruser for their assistance; and the Cornell Library 
system, including the rare books collection on mysticism and 
superstition originally compiled by the University's first president, 
Andrew Dickson White. 

Parts of four of the chapters in this book were written with my 
wife and long-time collaborator, Ann Druyan, who is also the 
elected Secretary of the Federation of American Scientists - an 
organization founded in 1945 by the original Manhattan Project 
scientists to monitor the ethical use of science and high tech- 
nology. She has also provided enormously helpful guidance, 
suggestions and criticism on content and style throughout the 
book and at every stage of writing it over the course of nearly a 
decade. I have learned from her more than I can say. I know how 
lucky I am to find in the same person someone whose advice and 
judgement, sense of humour and courageous vision I so much 
admire, who is also the love of my life. 



(a few citations and suggestions for further reading) 

CHAPTER I The Most Precious Thing 

Martin Gardner, 'Doug Henning and the Giggling Guru', Skepti- 
cal Inquirer, May/June 1995, pp. 9-11, 54. 

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, 'The Psychology of Prefer- 
ences', Scientific American, vol 246 (1982), pp. 160-173. 

Ernest Mandel, Trotsky as Alternative (London: Verso, 1995), p. 

Maureen O'Hara, 'Of Myths and Monkeys: A Critical Look at 
Critical Mass', in Ted Schultz, ed., The Fringes of Reason (see 
below), pp. 182-186. 

Max Perutz, Is Science Necessary? Essays on Science and Scientists 
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). 

Ted Schultz, ed., The Fringes of Reason: A Whole Earth Catalog: 
A Field Guide to New Age Frontiers, Unusual Beliefs & Eccentric 
Sciences (New York: Harmony, 1989). 



Xianghong Wu, 'Paranormal in China', Skeptical Briefs, vol 5 
(1995), no. l,pp. 1-3,14. 

J. Peder Zane, 'Soothsayers as Business Advisers', New York 
Times, 11 September 1994, sec. 4, p. 2. 

CHAPTER 2 Science and Hope 

Albert Einstein, 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies', pp. 
35-65 (originally published as 'Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Kor- 
per', Annalen der Physik 17 [1905], pp. 891-921), in H. Lorentz, A. 
Einstein, H. Minkowski and H. Weyl, The Principle of Relativity: A 
Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of 
Relativity (New York: Dover, 1923). 

Harry Houdini, Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (Buffalo, 
NY: Prometheus Books, 1981). 

CHAPTER 3 The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars 

John Michell, Natural Likeness: Faces and Figures in Nature (New 
York: E.P. Dutton, 1979). 

Carl Sagan and Paul Fox, 'The Canals of Mars: An Assessment 
after Mariner 9', Icarus, vol 25 (1972), pp. 601-612. 

CHAPTER 4 Aliens 

E.U. Condon, Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects 
(New York: Bantam Books, 1969). 

Philip J. Klass, Skeptics UFO Newsletter, Washington, DC, vari- 
ous issues. (Address: 404 'N' St. SW, Washington, DC 20024.) 

Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness 



of Crowds (first edition published in 1841) (New York: Farrar, 
Straus and Giroux, 1974, 1932) (also, New York: Gordon Press, 

Curtis Peebles, Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer 
Myth (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 

Donald B. Rice, 'No Such Thing as "Aurora" ', Washington Post, 
27 December 1992, p. 10. 

Carl Sagan and Thornton Page, eds., UFOs -A Scientific Debate 
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972). 

Jim Schnabel, Round in Circles: Physicists, Poltergeists, Prank- 
sters and the Secret History of the Cropwatchers (London: 
Penguin Books, 1994) (first published in Great Britain by 
Hamish Hamilton in 1993). 

CHAPTER 6 Hallucinations 

K. Dewhurst and A.W. Beard, 'Sudden Religious Conversions in 
Temporal Lobe Epilepsy', British Journal of Psychiatry, vol 117 
(1970), pp. 497-507. 

Michael A. Persinger, 'Geophysical Variables and Behavior: LV. 
Predicting the Details of Visitor Experiences and the Personality 
of Experients: The Temporal Lobe Factor', Perceptual and Motor 
Skills, vol 68 (1989), pp. 55-65. 

R.K. Siegel and L.J. West, eds., Hallucinations: Behavior, Expe- 
rience and Theory (New York: Wiley, 1975). 

CHAPTER 7 The Demon-Haunted World 

Katherine Mary Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, 



Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: 
Pantheon, 1976), pp. 239-242. 

Thomas E. Bullard, 'UFO Abduction Reports: The Supernatural 
Kidnap Narrative Returns in Technological Guise', Journal of 
American Folklore, vol 102, no. 404 (April- June 1989), pp. 147-170. 

Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons (New York: Basic Books, 

Ted Daniel, Millennial Prophecy Report, The Millennium Watch 
Institute, P.O. Box 34201, Philadelphia, PA 19101-4021, various 

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 
Volume I, AD 180-395 (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.), 
pp. 410, 361,432. 

Martin Kottmeyer, 'Entirely Unpredisposed', Magonia, January 

Martin S. Kottmeyer, 'Gauche Encounters: Badfilms and the 
UFO Mythos' (unpublished manuscript). 

John E. Mack, Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens (New 
York: Scribner's, 1994). 

John E. Mack, Nightmares and Human Conflict (Boston: Little 
Brown, 1970), pp. 227, 228. 

Annemarie de Waal Malefijt, Religion and Culture: An Introduction 
to Anthropology of Religion (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 
1989) (originally published in 1968 by Macmillan), pp. 286 ff. 

Jacques Vallee, Passport to Magonia (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 



CHAPTER 8 On the Distinction Between True and Fake Visions 

William A. Christian, Jr, Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renais- 
sance Spain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981). 

S. Ceci, M.L. Huffman, E. Smith and E. Loftus, 'Repeatedly 
Thinking About a Non-Event: Source Misattributions Among 
Pre-Schoolers', Consciousness and Cognition, vol 3 (1994) pp. 

CHAPTER 9 Therapy 

Anonymous, 'Trial in Woman's Blinding Offers Chilling Glimpse 
of Hoodoo', New York Times, 25 September 1994, p. 23. 

Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for 
Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (New York: Perennial 
Library, 1988) (second and third editions, 1993 and 1994). 

Richard J. Boylan and Lee K. Boylan, Close Extraterrestrial 
Encounters: Positive Experiences with Mysterious Visitors (Tigard, 
OR: Wild Flower Press, 1994). 

Gail S. Goodman, Jainjian Qin, Bette L. Bottoms and Philip R. 
Shaver, 'Characteristics and Sources of Allegations of Ritualistic 
Child Abuse', Final Report, Grant 90CA1405, to the National 
Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1994. 

David M. Jacobs, Secret Life: First-Hand Accounts of UFO 
Abductions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), p. 293. 

Carl Gustav Jung, Introduction to The Unobstructed Universe by 
Stewart Edward White (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1941). 

Kenneth V. Lanning, 'Investigator's Guide to Allegations of 
"Ritual" Child Abuse' (Washington: FBI, January 1992). 



Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, The Myth of Repressed 
Memory (New York: St Martin's Press, 1994). 

Mike Males, 'Recovered Memory, Child Abuse, and Media 
Escapism', Extra!, September/October 1994, pp. 10, 11. 

Ulric Neisser, keynote address, 'Memory with a Grain of Salt', 
Memory and Reality: Emerging Crisis conference, Valley 
Forge, PA, as reported by FMS Foundation (Philadelphia, PA) 
Newsletter, vol 2, no. 4 (3 May 1993), p. 1. 

Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters, Making Monsters (New York: 
Scribner's, 1994). 

Nicholas P. Spanos, Patricia A. Cross, Kirby Dixon and Susan C. 
DuBreuil, 'Close Encounters: An Examination of UFO Experi- 
ences', Journal of Abnormal Psychology, vol 102 (1993), pp. 

Rose E. Waterhouse, 'Government Inquiry Decides Satanic 
Abuse Does Not Exist', Independent on Sunday, London, 24 
April 1994. 

Lawrence Wright, Remembering Satan: A Case of Recovered 
Memory and the Shattering of an American Family (New York: 
Knopf, 1994). 

Michael D. Yapko, True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual 
Trauma: Suggestions of Abuse (New York: Simon and Schuster, 

CHAPTER 10 The Dragon in My Garage 

Thomas J. Flotte, Norman Michaud and David Pritchard, in 
Alien Discussions, Andrea Pritchard, et al, eds., pp. 279-295 
(Cambridge, MA: North Cambridge Press, 1994). 



Richard L. Franklin, Overcoming the Myth of Self-Worth: Reason 
and Fallacy in What You Say to Yourself (Appleton, WI: R.L. 
Franklin, 1994). 

Robert Lindner, The Fifty-Minute Hour: A Collection of True 
Psychoanalytic Tales, "The Jet-Propelled Couch' (New York and 
Toronto: Rinehart, 1954). 

James Willwerth, 'The Man from Outer Space', Time, 25 April 1994. 

CHAPTER 12 The Fine Art of Baloney Detection 

George O. Abell and Barry Singer, eds., Science and the 
Paranormal: Probing the Existence of the Supernatural (New 
York: Scribner's, 1981). 

Robert Basil, ed., Not Necessarily the New Age (Buffalo: 
Prometheus, 1988). 

Susan Blackmore, 'Confessions of a Parapsychologist', in Ted 
Schultz, ed., The Fringes of Reason (see above, Chapter 1 
references), pp. 70-74. 

Russell Chandler, Understanding the New Age (Dallas: Word, 

T. Edward Darner, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, second edition 
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1987). 

Kendrick Frazier, ed., Paranormal Borderlands of Science 
(Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1981). 

Martin Gardner, The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher 
(Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991). 

Daniel Goleman, 'Study Finds Jurors Often Hear Evidence with a 
Closed Mind', New York Times, 29 November 1994, pp. C-l, C-12. 



J.B.S. Haldane, Fact and Faith (London: Watts & Co., 1934). 

Philip J. Hilts, 'Grim Findings on Tobacco Made the 70s a Decade of 
Frustration' (including box, p. 12, 'Top Scientists For Companies 
Saw the Perils'), New York Times, 18 June 1994, pp. 1, 12. 

Philip J. Hilts, 'Danger of Tobacco Smoke Is Said to be Under- 
played', New York Times, 21 December 1994, D23. 

Howard Kahane, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of 
Reason in Everyday Life, 7th edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 

Noel Brooke Moore and Richard Parker, Critical Thinking (Palo 
Alto, CA: Mayfield, 1991). 

Graham Reed, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience (Buffalo, 
NY: Prometheus, 1988). 

Theodore Schick, Jr, and Lewis Vaughn, How to Think About 
Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age (Mountain View, 
CA: Mayfield, 1995). 

Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic Psychology 
(Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1982). 

CHAPTER 13 Obsessed with Reality 

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways, translated by Frances 
M. Lopez-Morillas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 

'Faith Healing: Miracle or Fraud', special issue of Free Inquiry, 
vol 6, no. 2 (Spring 1986). 

Paul Kurtz, The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge 
(Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992). 



William A. Nolen, M.D., Healing: A Doctor in Search of a 
Miracle (New York: Random House, 1974). 

David P. Phillips and Daniel G. Smith, 'Postponement of Death 
Until Symbolically Meaningful Occasions', Journal of the American 
Medical Association, vol 263 (1990), pp. 1947-1951. 

James Randi, The Faith Healers (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 
Books, 1989). 

James Randi, Flimflam! The Truth About Unicorns, Para- 
psychology & Other Delusions (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus 
Books, 1982). 

David Spiegel, 'Psychosocial Treatment and Cancer Survival', 
The Harvard Mental Health Letter, vol 7 (1991), no. 7, pp. 4-6. 

Charles Whitfield, Healing the Child Within (Deerfield Beach, 
FL: Health Communications, Inc., 1987). 

CHAPTER 14 Antiscience 

Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth 
About History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994). 

Morris R. Cohen, Reason and 'Nature: An Essay on the Meaning 
of Scientific Method (New York: Dover, 1978) (first edition 
published by Harcourt Brace in 1931). 

Gerald Holton, Science and Anti-Science (Cambridge: Harvard 
University Press, 1993), Chs. 5 and 6. 

John Keane, Tom Paine: A Political Life (Boston: Little Brown, 

Michael Krause, Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation 
(South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1989). 



Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. 
Reidel, 1987). 

CHAPTER 15 Newton's Sleep 

Henry Gordon, Channeling into the New Age (Buffalo: Prometheus, 

Charles T. Tart, 'The Science of Spirituality', in Ted Schultz, ed., 
The Fringes of Reason (see above, Chapter 1), p. 67. 

CHAPTER 16 When Scientists Know Sin 

William Broad, Teller's War: The Top-Secret Story Behind the Star 
Wars Deception (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). 

David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb (New Haven: Yale Univer- 
sity Press, 1994). 

John Passmore, Science and Its Critics (London: Duckworth, 1978). 

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Year- 
book 1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 378. 

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space 
(New York: Random House, 1994). 

Carl Sagan and Richard Turco, A Path Where No Man Thought: 
Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race (New York: 
Random House, 1990). 

CHAPTER 17 The Marriage of Scepticism and Wonder 

R.B. Culver and P. A. Ianna, The Gemini Syndrome: A Scientific 
Explanation of Astrology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984). 



David J. Hess, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its 
Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture (Madison, WI: 
The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993). 

Carl Sagan, 'Objections to Astrology' (letter to the editor), The 
Humanist, vol 36, no. 1 (January/February 1976), p. 2. 

Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition: Irrational Rational- 
ism and the Citadel of Science (Phoenix: Falcon Press, 1986). 

CHAPTER 18 The Wind Makes Dust 

Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). 

Richard Borshay Lee, The IKung San: Men, Women, and Work in a 
Foraging Society (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 

CHAPTER 19 No Such Thing as a Dumb Question 

Youssef M. Ibrahim, 'Muslim Edicts Take on New Force', New 
York Times, 12 February 1995, p. A14. 

Catherine S. Manegold, 'U.S. Schools Misuse Time, Study 
Asserts', New York Times, 5 May 1994, p. A21. 

'The Competitive Strength of U.S. Industrial Science and Tech- 
nology: Strategic Issues', a report of the National Science Board 
Committee on Industrial Support for R&D, National Science 
Foundation, Washington, DC, August 1992. 

CHAPTER 21 The Path to Freedom 

Walter R. Adam and Joseph O. Jewell, African-American 



Education Since An American Dilemma', Daedalus 124, pp. 
77-100, 1995. 

J. Larry Brown, ed., 'The Link Between Nutrition and Cognitive 
Development in Children', Center on Hunger, Poverty and 
Nutrition Policy, School of Nutrition, Tufts University, Medford, 
MA, 1993, and references given there. 

Gerald S. Coles, 'For Whom the Bell Curves', The Bookpress 5 
(1), pp. 8-9, 15, February, 1995. 

Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies: Narrative of a Life, My 
Bondage & My Freedom, Life and Times, Henry L. Gates, Jr, ed. 
(New York: Library of America, 1994). 

Leon J. Kamin, 'Behind the Bell Curve', Scientific American, 
February 1995, pp. 99-103. 

Tom Mclver, "The Protocols of Creationism: Racism, Anti- 
Semitism and White Supremacy in Christian Fundamentalism', 
Skeptic, vol 2, no. 4 (1994), pp. 76-87. 

CHAPTER 22 Significance Junkies 

Tom Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of 
Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: Free Press, 1991). 

'O.J. Who?', New York, 17 October 1994, p. 19. 

CHAPTER 23 Maxwell and The Nerds 

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands, 
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume II, The Electromag- 
netic Field (Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley, 1964). Passages 
quoted appear on pp. 18-2, 20-8 and 20-9. 



Ivan Tolstoy, James Clerk Maxwell: A Biography (Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press, 1982) (originally published by 
Canongate Publishing Ltd, Edinburgh, 1981). 

CHAPTER 24 Science and Witchcraft 

William Glaberson, "The Press: Bought and Sold and Grey All 
Over', New York Times, 30 July 1995, Section 4, pp. 1, 6. 

Peter Kuznick, 'Losing the World of Tomorrow: The Battle Over 
the Presentation of Science at the 1939 World's Fair', American 
Quarterly, vol 46, no. 3 (September 1994), pp. 341-373. 

Ernest Mandel, Trotsky or Alternative (see above, Chapter 1). 

Rossell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and 
Demonology (New York: Crown, 1960). 

Jeremy J. Stone, 'Conscience, Arrogation and the Atomic Scien- 
tists' and 'Edward Teller: A Scientific Arrogator of the Right', 
F.A.S. [Federation of American Scientists] Public Interest Report, 
vol 47, no. 4 (July/ August 1994), pp. 1, 11. 

CHAPTER 25 Real Patriots Ask Questions 

I. Bernard Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers (Cambridge: 
Harvard University Press, 1995). 

Clinton Rossiter, Seedtime of the Republic (New York: Harcourt 
Brace, 1953). Excerpted in Rossiter, The First American Revolu- 
tion (San Diego: Harvest). 

J.H. Sloan, F.P. Rivera, D.T. Reay, J.A.J. Ferris, M.R.C. Path 
and A.L. Kellerman, 'Firearm Regulations and Rates of Suicide: 
A Comparison of Two Metropolitan Areas', New England Jour- 
nal of Medicine, vol 311 (1990), pp. 369-373. 

'Post Script', Conscience, vol 15, no. 1 (Spring 1994), p. 77. 


About the Author 

Dr Carl Sagan is a recent recipient of the Public Welfare 
Medal, the highest award of the National Academy of 
Sciences (for 'distinguished contributions in the application of 
science to the public welfare . . . No one has ever succeeded in 
conveying the wonder, excitement and joy of science as widely as 
Carl Sagan and few as well. His ability to capture the imagination 
of millions and to explain difficult concepts in understandable 
terms is a magnificent achievement'). 

A Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr Sagan is the author of many 
bestsellers, including Cosmos, which became the most widely read 
science book ever published in the English language. The accom- 
panying Emmy and Peabody award-winning television series 
became the most widely watched series in the history of American 
television until then, and has now been seen by 500 million people 
in 60 countries. He is currently the David Ducan Professor of 
Astronomy and Space Sciences at Cornell University; Distin- 
guished Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cali- 
fornia Institute of Technology; and co-founder and president of 
The Planetary Society, the largest space-interest group in the 

Dr Sagan has played a leading role in the American space 
programme since its inception, and in solving many enigmas about 
the planets. 

The American Association of Physics Teachers, in giving him its 



Oersted Medal, included the following citation: 'Carl Sagan 
has . . . acknowledged the responsibility of the scientist to call to 
the public's attention important and difficult national policy issues 
related to science such as the arms race, nuclear proliferation, and 
environmental concerns like the greenhouse effect and the ozone 
layer. As a debater who acted always in a thoughtful manner 
towards those with contrary views, he has sought to raise the 
intellectual and moral level of the discussion and greatly increased 
the public's awareness of these vital issues . . . The Oersted 
Medal, given for notable contributions to the teaching of physics, 
is the highest honor the AAPT can bestow on an individual. Carl 
Sagan, master communicator and teacher in the broadest and 
deepest sense of the word, brings honor to the award.' 

Canada's Queens University, in presenting Dr Sagan with one 
of his twenty-two honorary degrees, commented: '[Carl Sagan is 
an] awesomely gifted astrophysicist and arguably science's best 
living literary stylist ... As readers, we appreciate his implicit 
confidence in our intelligence and interest, his illuminating 
insights and his playful wit. As a community of scholars, we 
acknowledge with admiration his relentless pursuit of the really 
big questions . . . and the twin philosophies by which he lives and 
teaches: that "Science is never finished" and that "We make our 
world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of 
our answers."